Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Mysterious Font of San Sebastian

credit: burlak (click the image to visit the original)

credit: Burlak (click the image to visit the original)

There’s a particular font that’s thoroughly used in San Sebastian‘s shops. See the image above for an example. It is so common, in fact, that I’ve been wondering why did everyone think that it was a good typeface for commercial signage.

However, no one I asked (even locals) seemed to have any idea. They reacted as if they never noticed the coincidence. To a point, that’s understandable, I guess: we humans tend to overlook the topics that we are familiar with. The font is so ubiquitous, though, that there seems to be a collective tacit agreement about its appropriateness. That has been intriguing me for a while, so I set out to find out the origin of such unspoken popularity.

It is hard to find fonts when one doesn’t know their name or doesn’t have a digital sample. Handwritten ones (and the instances I’ve been seeing were hand-painted, since there are nearly no standardized shapes; only a general –but unmistakable– similarity) tend to make it difficult even for font identifying services such as the otherwise excellent WhatTheFont or Identifont.

But a quick search for “historical fonts” (as I suspected this phenomenon to have some sort of influence from past cultures, especially after I learned that the Basque language might be thousands of years old) led me to find a few samples that gave me a clue, through their names: a few of the most similar to what I was looking for referenced Celtic themes in their names.

And sure enough, looking in DaFont for “Celtic fonts” yielded results that pretty much narrowed down the typeface’s family to the Celtic group. For example, Celtic Hand, Cabaletta or Alte Caps (all free). Doing a search in WhatTheFont with a screnshot of one of these, I found two more: Ponte Vecchio and Celtics Modern. Below is the word Anoeta (a popular football stadium in San Sebastian) written in Celtic Hand. Looks pretty similar to what I’ve been seeing all around. Granted, it’s somewhat thinner, and less curvy, but the features are mostly there.

Celtic Hand sample

Celtic Hand sample

Finally, as a confirmation to my quick research, I went to Wikipedia read a bit about the history of the Basque people. And bingo, there I found the map below, which indeed shows the Basque tribes surrounded by Celtic tribes:

Location of the ancient tribes of the Basque Country region. Red = Basque and other pre-Indoeuropean tribes. Blue = Celtic tribes

Location of the ancient tribes of the Basque Country region. Red = Basque and other pre-Indoeuropean tribes. Blue = Celtic tribes

I know, I’m nuts for “wasting” time researching all this and writing a blog post about it… but I’ve been like that for since I remember. Actually, finding these “obscure” stuff it’s one of the little pleasures that from time to time I like to indulge myself with. No wonder I’m a Wikipedian!

update: It was actually worth it, afterall: I used this research to start a conversation with a cute girl in the bus. (It helps that these signs are everywhere!) How’s that for nerddom? :P

update 2: as I suspected, and as Paulo confirms below in the comments, this is common in all the Basque region, not only in San Sebastian.

Posted by Waldir Pimenta in 21:28:04

One Response to “The Mysterious Font of San Sebastian”

  1. Paulo Ricca says:

    It’s funny you write about this because I’ve thought the same lots of times!
    When I was a child I spent some holidays in that area and allways noticed how everything was written with the same letters :)
    Recently I’ve been there again and asked some locals (and also not foreigners) about it and they didn’t know what I was talking about :D Now I know I’m not crazy.

    ..not as crazy as I thought I was anyway.