Designing a Font to Preserve a Vanishing Language


In the state of Washington, type designer Juliet Shen has been working with a Native American tribe, called Tulalip, to create a font for the Lushootseed language. At the time, the Lushootseed was near extinction. Only five tribal elders were known to be fluent in the language. This was largely because the U.S. government launched an ill-guided program in 1912 to “assimilate” indigenous people into American society by sending their children away to boarding schools where they were forced to adopt European ways. Under threat of punishment, the children were forbidden to speak their own native language. Since Lushootseed had no written tradition, the history of the culture had all but vanished by the 1960s.

It wasn’t until Thom Hess, a University of Washington linguistics graduate student, started recording the stories told by elders in 1967 that an effort was made to devise a written language for Lushootseed. His field work led him to a Tulalip woman named Vi Hilbert, who embraced his interest in preserving the stories of the indigenous people who lived around Washington’s Puget Sound. Using a variation of the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system of symbols used to record every sound the human voice can make, Hess taught Hilbert to phonetically write out the Lushootseed words. Together, the two produced two Lushootseed dictionaries and worked tirelessly to write down cultural lore told by the elders.


Still, until now no real font was available in Lushootseed. Instead, a typeface, loosely based on Times Roman, was improvised and cobbled together. “They were typesetting in Lushootseed, but it wasn’t attractive,” Shen recalls. “The text looked like chemistry formulas and like it was written backwards.”

In December 2008, the Tulalip tribal leaders commissioned Shen to design a complete font solely for Lushootseed. They requested that the font be Unicode compliant, with all proprietary rights assigned exclusively to the Tulalip tribe. Shen recalls, “At the first meeting, one of the oldest of the language teachers said, ‘This is a graceful language, but it doesn’t look that way.’ The sound of the language speaks of the physical environment that the tribe has inhabited – like water washing ashore, wind moving through the trees. My internal design brief was to get rid of an ‘adapted’ look and make it appear as if it has always been.”

Although Shen didn’t have to learn the language, she says she did have to understand the structure and how words were put together. For example, the modified question mark, or glottal stop, indicates the open space between the vocal cords. The raised comma “glottalizes” the letter it is over. The “w” changes the sound of the letter before it, and no letter “O” exists in the Lushootseed alphabet. Also, because the Lushootseed alphabet has more than 26 letters, spaces on a keyboard normally used for capital letters had to be allocated to other characters.

Shen took her design inspiration from the beautiful wood carvings for which the native people of the Pacific Northwest are known. In designing a face, Shen says, “you have to decide how your curved strokes join your straight strokes. I tried to imagine that it was carved out of wood and made that kind of joint. The intersection of the stroke was routed like you were creating in wood.” Once the font was completed, the Tulalip asked Shen for help in establishing a letterpress shop to give their youth a hands-on experience with the language. “The tribal elders hope that by working directly with letterforms and printing presses, they can create a crossroad of literacy, literature, technology and art,” Shen explains.

The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, agreed to craft each letter from wood. Hamilton, which began producing wood type in 1880, has been dedicated to preserving, studying and producing wood type and now owns more than 1.5 million pieces in its museum. Hamilton has proven the ideal collaborator for the Lushootseed language project. Like the Tulalip tribe, Hamilton appreciates the value and importance of preserving an historic artform and imbuing it with the warmth of elders seeking to pass an endangered language from one generation to the next.

8 thoughts on “Designing a Font to Preserve a Vanishing Language

  1. We consider Juliet Shen to be one of the treasures of the School of Visual Concepts. She teaches typography and design courses here, and as you might imagine, always earns the praise and respect of her students.

  2. It is wonderful to see how Juliet Shen has brought her great brilliance and depth to this project.

  3. I think Juliet Shen's creation of the Lushootseed typeface is nothing short of remarkable. She has done a brilliant job of capturing a feeling that shouts out the unique cultural identity of the Tulalip tribe. As a native of Seattle I'm blessed to have both these people and Ms. Shen right in my backyard. My only quibble with the article is in the reference to the US government forcing native Americans to learn European ways. While obviously a piece of monumental stupidity and cruelty, it was an American approach. . I think it is time to stop carping about “European” mores. For good or bad we do have our own culture and we make our own mistakes. If you spend any time in Europe you will quickly realize that they ain't us and we ain't them, thank goodness.

  4. You're absolutely right, Dick. My apologies. In my clumsy attempt to keep the focus on the type design and not get into a lengthy discussion of stupid government mistakes, I managed to insult Europeans and Native Americans. Then again, I chose to say “European” because policy wasn't aimed at teaching the children to become “Asian American.” I think I'm in a no-win pickle here.


  5. Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is honored to be collaborating with Juliet and the Tulalip Tribe on the Lushootseed font. This project represents a merging of literacy, art, design and technology that help keep this 130 year-old institution relevant. We're excited to unveil it at our Wayzgoose November 20-22 at the museum. In addition to Juliet, we're also thrilled to be hosting Matthew Carter, Rich Kegler, Sumner Stone and a host of other designers, typographers and printers. Learn more at http://woodtype.org/wayzgoose.shtml

  6. Delphine, I don't think that this whole thing rises to the level of requiring an apology. I personally hold the world's record for putting my foot in my mouth. Either that or my wife deliberately mishears and misunderstands things I say that don't mean what she thinks at all. I might as well be speaking another long forgotten and neglected tongue. So I can't magnanimously say, “I forgive you” when there is really nothing to forgive. You were only using a descriptor than I hear practically every day. You didn't invent it. It was just an easy way to explain something, but one that, after I have heard it so often, made me realize wasn't very accurate. Of course if you still want to insist that it was a major insult, I will be happy to challenge you to a duel.

    Maybe we can spit watermelon seeds at each other from ten paces.

    Thanks for your note. I was really nice of you to respond to my comment. Your article was great.


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  7. What a wonderful project. Everyone involved should be commended for their valuable work for such a good cause.

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