New Look for a Native Language

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A designer creates three fonts that help the Cherokee nation express itself in new ways.

For the first time in history the Cherokee Nation has more than one font to express its native language in written form, thanks to design help from Gary Munch, an award-winning letterpress designer who teaches at the University of Bridgeport Shintaro Akatsu School of Design.

Munch’s contributions, unveiled recently and now being put to use in Cherokee schools, are the key to preserving their native language, say tribe elders. “Native languages across the world are disappearing and Cherokee is at risk of being lost, even with all the successful programs we have had,” says Joseph Erb, of language technology and education services at the Cherokee Nation. “How do you excite your community about your language again? Beautiful fonts are one of the answers. As we continue to grow our language back in the youth, they demand quality technology from our language. Fonts are a very key part of that.”

 

Cherokee Nation Font
Cherokee Nation Font by Gary Munch

Until Munch unveiled his designs, the Cherokee only had one font in which to properly express their language in writing, and it had been designed in the 1820s. Other fonts for Cherokee had been “designed by people who did not speak or write Cherokee and had characters that were not correct,” Erb says. “Think about a world with only one font.” Without the Garamonds, Times New Romans, and Bodonis that color the printed world of English and other romance languages, things look pretty dull. Crisp and modern — or fanciful and rooted in tradition — fonts’ structure and appearance send strong subliminal messages about content and image. With that in mind, Erb attended a design conference called Typecon 2011, searching for help. There he met Munch from the University of Bridgeport.

Without the Garamonds, Times New Romans, and Bodinis that color the printed world of English and other romance languages, things look pretty dull.

The original Cherokee font, says Munch, “had formalized letters — had similarly shaped, but differently sounded letters in Latin, Greek or Cyrillic, with a very high contrast of weight on strokes and very thin on horizontals. This was fashionable the early nineteenth century, but the Nation wanted a selection of typefaces that were different, expressive, even fun—just as anyone else who uses typefaces looks for just the right one for a variety of messages.”

Munch produced three new options: Chancery Modern ProCherokee, a sleek sans serif semi-cursive font; a multipurpose “workhorse” design that he dubbed Neogrotesk Cherokee; and finally, the so-called Munch Chancery Cherokee, a calligraphic font that resembles handwriting, and, says Erb, “is beautiful to look at.” In fact, the Nation is using Munch Chancery at its Cherokee Immersion School and by some of the translation staff.

“It would be very difficult to describe how nice fonts of different kinds are in a language that has so few,” Erb concludes. “Gary did amazing work. He may not have the ability to read and write our language, but he has very good instincts and ability to work with suggestions to create something new and exciting. He heard our plea for a better written word and used his talents to make our written world better. That is something special.”

What could a naturopathic physician, graphic designer, and literature professor have in common? They all work at the University of Bridgeport, but they’re connected in a more unique way. Independently of each other, they have all researched some aspect of Cherokee heritage.

commonground_400Naturopathic physician Jody E. Noé, M.S., N.D., has been studying the oral medicinal tradition of the Keetoowah Western Cherokee while graphic design professor Gary Munch was busy designing a modern Cherokee font for the Cherokee Nation, at the invitation of a tribal representative. On another part of campus, Diane Krumrey, an associate professor of English, has long been an admirer of Cherokee writers.

When the three found each other at UB’s 2012 Faculty Research Day, they took the opportunity to exchange their ideas and enthusiasm. Krumrey muses, “It’s incredible to think that the three of us, from such different fields, were brought together by our interest in a particular Native American tribe’s rich heritage, thanks to Faculty Research Day.”

 

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