2022 | Concept

Parsegh: Armenian Typeface Design

Parsegh Keshishian (1890-1970)

The idea and process for the project, to take Armenian handwritten calligraphy and create a digital font for it, was sparked by one of my visits to my grandparents’ home. Spending time with my grandparents has always been such a treasure for me. I genuinely enjoy their company and listening to their stories and learning more about my mother’s culture. Their home is filled with so many unique items including a collection of old books written in various languages. One of my favourite activities is to look through the archive of their books and other print materials, as they often help to generate design ideas for me. One item in their collection that has always stood out for me has been a handwritten bible written by my great-uncle, Parsegh Keshishian, who by trade was a castings grinder, but as a hobby would scribe religious texts. I later learned that this handwritten masterpiece was one of seven works (five of which are in a museum in Boston), and would be the inspiration for my next big project. The book was estimated to have taken him 24 hours per page and approximately 25 years of his life overall. The letters are beautifully written and are fairly cohesive, considering the medium in which it was produced. My project was to take the letters and use them as a basis for an Armenian typeface. The following is the final product and is named after the original inspiration “Parsegh”. This project was a part of an independent study for my third year of study at OCAD University and was supervised by Professor Richard Hunt.

The short essay below explains the process of inspiration for my typeface.

The book in the analysis was designed and scribed by Parsegh Keshishian in the 1960s. It is a copied version of the new testament, written in Liturgical Armenian. This book is significant for the unique letterforms within the text, which is entirely handwritten in Armenian calligraphy, with additional added design elements such as custom paper, velvet wrapping, and silver and brass cast ornate symbols. The calligraphy is also relatively consistent in its structure and X-Height.

The Armenian lettering system was invented in the year 405 AD by Mesrop Mashtots an Armenian monk. The base script of the Armenian alphabet is Greek, which consists of 24 letters. However, the Armenian language phonemes are too complex to just utilize the 24 Greek letters, which is why there are an additional 14 letters that were created to make up for the more complex sounds. Later on, three more characters were added to the alphabet which totalled the number of letters at 38 for the Eastern dialect. Additionally, the Armenian alphabet consists of 7 vowels and 31 consonants. After its creation, the Alphabet was widespread and sparked a period of illumination and advancements within the culture. Given that Armenian lettering has existed for so long, there has been a history of different writing styles and methods that were influenced by the period in which the scribes were practicing. Paeleographers have classified Armenian calligraphy into four main groups, similar to the Latin Vox Attpy Classification system, based on their appearance, structure and the period in which they originate. The four main groups are, Erkata’gir, Bolor’gir, Sła’gir, and Notr’gir. This text falls under Bolor’gir, given that Bolor’gir is made up of angled strokes, and sharp corners, with a slight humanist nature to it.

The lettering in the book is written in 2 styles. The title of the book and the drop caps are all done in a different Ertkata’gir and Bolor’gir hybrid that is purely Magiscule. Whereas the body text is done in the aforementioned Bolor’gir calligraphy which is comprised of both Magiscule and Miniscule. For the sake of clear communication, we will refer to the Magiscule lettering as “decorative display text” and the mixed case lettering as “body text”. What stands out about the decorative display text is the method in which it was created. Unlike the body text, the decorative display text was outlined and then filled in. It seems as if Parsegh had made a mistake when designing the cover, as you can see what appears to be slightly erased pencil outlines offset from the final letter (possibly due to a miscalculation of spacing). This mistake was evidence that the letters were drawn and then filled in, compared to those drawn with a thicker pen or some other tool. The decorative display text is in some cases is twice as thick in stroke weight as the body text and creates strong contrast throughout the text.

There was absolutely no reason for Parsegh to have to write this book by hand because at this point in the mid-20th century, it was almost second nature to typeset and print on a printing press or even a typewriter. It is clear that this was a labour of love and dedication, as a way to uphold tradition, become closer to God and a rejection of the industrialized printing industry. Before the printing press, books (especially bibles) were scribed by monks, and to do so was honourable as it was a sign of dedication to one’s religion. Like many Armenians, Parsegh was a devout Orthodox Christian and had ancestors who were priests. In fact, the last name Keshishian is a surname given to any high member of the Orthodox Church in Armenia. This influence of religion is partly what inspired Parsegh to devout his time and his skill in producing this book. It is also important to note the fact that Parsegh, like a majority of Armenians born before 1915, was affected by the Armenian Genocide. For those who are unfamiliar with this event in history, the Armenian Genocide occurred between 1915 and 1923 and was an attempt to ethnically cleanse the Ottoman Empire of its native Armenian population. It resulted in the death of 1.2 million of the 1.5 million Armenians living in modern-day Turkey. The remaining Armenians found refuge in neighbouring countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Russia, and Syria, or moved to western countries like France, Canada and the United States. The aim of the genocide was to convert a heavily Christian population into Muslims, and like many other moments in history, the Armenians decided to reject the conversion, even if it meant leaving their ancestral homeland or dying for their beliefs. Parsegh, like many other Armenians was fortunate enough to escape Turkey, and wound up begging on the streets of Damascus. Parsegh was able to eventually move to Racine, Wisconsin in the United States and join a flourishing Armenian community centred around a newly built Armenian church in the 1940s. Parsegh was an integral contributor in helping fund and build an Armenian church in Racine and the church that was constructed, like many other Armenian diaspora communities, became the anchor for the community.

It is believed that Parsegh was most likely trained by his father Haroutioun (who was the son of a priest) to read and write in Armenian. He wanted to honour God by devoting years to the re-production of existing Armenian bibles, books of rituals, and books of prayers. Parsegh completed 7 manuscripts, and each page took approximately 24 hours to hand-letter, resulting in 25 years of work to complete. One would note that the writing style that Parsegh chose to write in is not the traditional writing style that a scribe would write in. Most ancient Armenian manuscripts were written in Erkata’gir, whereas Parsegh chose Bolor’gir. It is possible that out of convenience and in order to conserve costs, Parsegh chose the more casual Bolor’gir script. The number of strokes to create an Erkata’gir letter would average 5-6 ,whereas Bolor’gir would take 2-3. Thus by using Bolor’gir he would be able to substantially reduce time spent on completing each page and also, arguably, it is more legible for sustained reading than large majuscule letters.

Due to the Armenian Genocide, much of the caligraphy and type designed by Armenians has been lost. There is definitely a community in and outside of Armenia that has strived to modernize its lettering and create beautiful Armenian typefaces; however, in comparison to Latin, the Armenian type scene is meagre. Within the Latin type-community, there has been a shift in interest in sustained reading typefaces. One could argue that there are already more than enough typefaces for body text, as most designers will stick with a few “old-reliables” like Times, Helvetica, Calibri, Georgia etc. Armenians however still require more typefaces in order to have diverse designs. Imagine only being able to choose from 5-6 typefaces to set your text in. With this said, given the discovery of this consistent calligraphy, it is possible to render Parsegh’s type and create a new Armenian typeface to add to the choices available. Parsegh’s desire and love to handwrite biblical script in his personal style, can now live on for future generations as a new Armenian font.

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