Fraktron

The nominal minimal document

Fraktron is a set of specifications, libraries and applications to facilitate historically correct typesetting of German and other languages in blackletter script using a variety of font formats, encodings, modes and features.

Fraktron is named after Fraktur, glyph-for-glyph the most printed style of blackletter in history, over 99% in the German language. Some beautiful examples of typeset Fraktur can be found on the web, including Gerhard Helzel's memoirs, this book review of Meyers Konversationslexikon by Hans-Georg Soldat, and Fontane's Meine Kinderjahre typeset by Yannis Haralambous.

But Fraktron is equally useful for other blackletter styles like Textura, Rotunda, Bastarda, Kanzlei, Schwabacher and Notula, as well as more Roman styles, and those somewhere in between, such as Carolingian.

The primary driving force behind Fraktron is the confusing and mutually incompatible variety of previous solutions crippled by 8-bit kludged encodings, mismapped characters, and lack of extensibility in terms of number of ligatures and alternates.

This is not meant to demean these previous solutions, most of which were developed in relative isolation before Internet access became ubiquitous and affordable, and before recent font technology advances such as OpenType and Unicode had occurred. Indeed, these newer technologies are essential to the success of Fraktron; one might say they do 90% of the work for us. So we intend to leverage them to keep the end user from having to think his way through archaic, mind-numbing composition rules when a computer could do such things with its eyes closed.

Fraktron comprises three principal components: a font specification, a morphology engine, and a set of external interfaces.

The font specification component of Fraktron aims to shed light on the relatively few simple steps required to make a given blackletter font compatible. This generally entails the correct presence and Unicode index assignment for a small number of additional individual characters, and the correct presence and feature coding of ligature glyphs and their corresponding OpenType, AAT, and/or Graphite features.

The morphology engine applies both modular linguistic rules and straight dictionary files to correctly insert alternate characters (such as long s) and control charaters (such as ZWNJ) into input text to generate the anachronized output text.

The external interfaces connect Fraktron into a typesetting workflow involving Unicode text source files and typesetting applications both free and commercial. The project will deliberately focus only on applications that leverage both Unicode and some kind of advanced font technology such as OpenType, AAT, Graphite or TeX macros.

Integration with pre-Unicode legacy systems such as Quark Xpress and vi is left up to those with sufficient, shall we say, enthusiasm for such tasks. To them we say, "our code is your code, knock yourself out." :-)

The project will naturally also include sample code, sample fonts, and copious documentation about how to use this, what this is, and why you would want to use it in the first place.

The story so far.

Font Sources

You can buy blackletter fonts from a number of foundries. The three largest--Adobe, Monotype and Linotype--use the Dfr (deutsche Fraktur) encoding standard. So does the smaller boutique foundry Elsner + Flake.

Linotype details it in this document. Briefly: s gets overloaded as long s, # and the en dash become normal ("round") s, * becomes ä, + becomes ü, = becomes the ligature ll, [ becomes the ligature ff, ] becomes the ligature ft, inverted ! becomes the ligature ck, inverted ? becomes the ligature ch, right double quote becomes the ligature tz, left and right single guillemot become the ligatures long s-long s and long s-i, double dagger becomes ö, and per thoufsand becomes the ligature long s-t.

Except Dfr doesn't always work that way. Some of those ligatures don't even show up in the fonts. (I am still assessing the scope of divergence here and will include more detail in the future.) Some of them were never designed with a certain ligature like ll or ft.

But then there are also some smaller entities with their own encodings. The largest selection of blackletters by far has to be Dipl.- Ing. Gerhard Helzel. Not far behind are Delbanco Frakturschriften and FVL GbR. There is also a nice package available from Waldenfont.

Converter utilities

In the past, a number of different utilities have let PC and Mac users convert normal text into Dfr or a similar 8-bit encoding. Some of them worked inside an application such as Word 97 or 2000. Others manipulated the clipboard--cut a run of text, convert and paste back.

These utilities include Helzel's Frakturconverter for Windows and Mac; Frakturmeister, Ligaturix, MacFrakturix, and possibly others.

Fraktron aims to perform their function in the age of Unicode and OpenType. Unicode keeps us from having to ruin the semantics of text by overloading punctuation characters with ligatures and alternates. OpenType takes care of ligature substitution. Both commercial applications like InDesign and free applications like XeTeX could leverage such a converter today.

And the ligature substitution technology need not be OpenType--it could just as easily be Apple Advanced Typography (AAT) or SIL's Graphite or even some TeX macros in Omega. The common denominator is a smart font technology compatible with Unicode.

Preliminary Reading

Die Bund Für Deutsche Schrift und Sprache offers this document explaining the s-versus-long-s rules. And Linotype offers this one. And Yannis Haralambous published this excellent article on how to do it in TeX for the 2000 DANTE conference.

More to come...

Watch this space for details on the initial architecture proposal, important decisions to make, the first free sample fonts, and an early converter prototype. If you would like to communicate with me (John Butler) you can email sourceforge@eccentrifuge.com.