Google Noto: a typeface collection with hieroglyphs

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In a quest to try to harmonise the ever-disparate heap of technologies that we use to connect on the internet, Google have developed what may be the most comprehensive collection of typefaces yet. Under the umbrella name of Google Noto, the aim of the collection is to include every unicode symbol ever (for free).

They say:

When text is rendered by a computer, sometimes characters are displayed as “tofu”. They are little boxes to indicate your device doesn’t have a font to display the text.

Google has been developing a font family called Noto, which aims to support all languages with a harmonious look and feel. Noto is Google’s answer to tofu. The name noto is to convey the idea that Google’s goal is to see “no more tofu”. Noto has multiple styles and weights, and is freely available to all.

There are four typefaces which will be of interest to Egyptoholics:

  • Google Noto Sans Egyptian Hieroglyphs
  • Google Noto Sans Coptic
  • Google Noto Sans and Google Noto Serif (there’s no separate transliteration typeface as all transliteration characters are standard unicode symbols contained within the Sans and Serif typefaces)

Google Noto Sans Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The hieroglyph typeface is extensive. Having had a quick look at it, it does seem to be quite comprehensive. The one glaring let down is that the signs are all left-facing, meaning that to set hieroglyphs reading right-to-left, you will need to manually reverse the glyphs. Below are screenshots I took of the glyphs panel in InDesign (Adobe’s desktop publishing software) to show you all the hieroglyphs included in the font.

A screenshot showing some of the hieroglyphs in the Google Noto Egyptian Hieroglyphs font
A screenshot showing some of the hieroglyphs in the Google Noto Egyptian Hieroglyphs font
A screenshot showing some of the hieroglyphs in the Google Noto Egyptian Hieroglyphs font
A screenshot showing some of the hieroglyphs in the Google Noto Egyptian Hieroglyphs font

Not bad!

Below is a sample I put together (borrowed from p.36 of Collier and Manley’s How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs) showing the hieroglyphs compared to those of the LaserHieroglyphics typeface collection (the professional, non-free collection I use when typesetting hieroglyphs).

Google Noto Hieroglyphs + Google Noto Sans

An example of a hieroglyphic text using the Google Noto Hieroglyphs and Google Noto Sans fonts

LaserHieroglyphics + Transliteration

An example of a hieroglyphic text using the LaserHieroglypics and Transliteration fonts

I haven’t messed around with the hieroglyphs to get them set properly into groups; I just put them one after the other to see how they sit. The Google Noto glyphs are a little messy with how they line up. Some of the glyphs are also, in my opinion, a little oversized, such as the hand and leg.

Apart from that, it’s just a matter of taste as to which one you prefer.

Google Noto Sans for transliteration

Using the sample above, I think the transliteration using Google Noto Sans has a certain modern stylishness to it. I used the Sans typeface, but you could also use the Serif typeface to get it looking more like the usual transliteration fonts we’re used to seeing in books.

The downside to using the Google Noto typefaces for transliteration is that it’s laborious compared to the (also free) Transliteration font. To produce the above line of transliteration, I had to pick each glyph from the glyphs panel. When using the Transliteration typeface, because it uses the Manuel de Codage equivalents on the keyboard, it’s really very quick to type out.

For those of us with websites, because the Transliteration typeface uses the standard keyboard, you can upload the typeface to your server and reproduce the transliteration as live text very quickly, instead of having to create and upload a jpg file:

Htp-di-nsw Asir nb Ddw nTr aA nb AbDw

You can, of course, upload the Google Noto typeface (or any other standard typeface containing the symbols, licence permitting) and do the same, but you’d still have to copy and paste the glyphs instead of just typing. Again, much more laborious.

(I uploaded the hieroglyph typeface, too, but couldn’t seem to get the hieroglyphs to display. If anyone knows how to make this work on a website, please do let me know in the comments section.)

Google Noto Coptic

The Google Noto Coptic typeface is really quite pleasing. It seems comprehensive, and you can add the supralinear stroke (the line that’s added above some of the consonants) by adding the stroke glyph after typing the letter. The strokes are designed to sit further to the left than you’d expect so they appear above the previous glyph instead of in a space of their own.

Here’s the glyph panel showing all available signs:

A screenshot showing the Google Noto Coptic font

And here’s a sample I grabbed from Lambdin’s Introduction to Sahidic Coptic (p.145), compared with the New Athena Unicode typeface, which I’ve used previously:

Google Noto Coptic:

An example of Coptic text using the Google Noto Coptic font

New Athena Unicode:

An example of Coptic text using the New Athena Unicode font

It was quick and easy to set, mainly because, unlike the Sans typeface, the Coptic typeface doesn’t have many glyphs to look through. So, although I had to pick out the glyphs from the panel, it wasn’t particularly time consuming. And, again, I think the typeface is quite stylish.

Why use Google Noto fonts?

There are already typefaces available for setting hieroglyphs, transliteration and Coptic, so what benefits do the Google Noto typefaces carry?

It’s main selling points are that it’s free, fully licensed and available in Google apps (Docs etc) via the character map.

Apart from that, it’s a matter of aesthetic preference and the ability to create a more harmonious look across documents when using a mixture of scripts. There are free typefaces for hieroglyphs, transliteration and Coptic all readily available, so Google Noto is another to add to the mix.

One thing to note, however, is that I’ve previously heard of Mac users experiencing problems using hieroglyph typefaces and apps (such as JSesh), so I’d be interested to know from any Mac people if the Google Noto typefaces work well for them.

The potential for the Noto collection to help standardise text across websites, social media, email providers, ebooks and the like is where the real interest lies. Back in 2014, I wrote about the problems of rendering transliteration across digital platforms and the tendency to use Manuel de Codage instead for the sake of speed and efficiency. I hope that Google Noto and its intended standardisation is a step towards resolving these issues.

Do you use any hieroglyphic fonts? If so, have you tried Google Noto? What did you think of it? Do you have another font you prefer, or do you use an editor, like JSesh? Start the conversation in the comments below.

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