August 25, 2009

Collecting Culture

The Critical Diacritical

Is the ‘okina shown on the Hawai‘i stamp a mistake? Many have suggested so, but you be the judge.

Final stamp typography: The ‘okina was produced using the correct key combination for the diacritic.

The ‘okina is known as a diacritic — a mark that may appear above or below a letter, or even between two letters, changing the pronunciation. Stamp artist Herb Kawainui Kane describes the ‘okina like this:

“The ‘okina is an apostrophe or comma turned 180 degrees (upside down) … For an ‘okina, the heavier end should be below the narrow end … The word ‘okina and its linguistic symbol represent an ancient consonant that has been dropped in the Hawaiian dialect of the Polynesian language; ‘okina means ending, severance, cutting off, separation — a ‘glottal stop’ or halting in pronunciation.”

Same font showing apostrophe for comparison.

Diacritic as rendered in a commonly-used font. Axis of ‘okina appears to be nearly vertical.

Perhaps an optimal ‘okina — narrow end over heavier, angling to the right.

Unfortunately, contemporary digital fonts do not always convey the subtleties of ancient linguistics. Some fonts contain diacritical marks, and a keystroke combination will generate an ‘okina. But the mark sometimes renders with the heavy end above the narrow end (like an apostrophe) or slants the wrong way. Occasionally, an apostrophe will be used in lieu of the ‘okina. Differing “official” versions of the ‘okina can be seen in print and digital media.

“I’m informed that the use of the apostrophe is tolerated for now,” Kane continues, “because the ‘okina cannot be struck with some computer fonts or type faces.”

In designing the Hawai‘i statehood stamp, the art director considered a number of typographic treatments. He settled on the font and ‘okina shown in the final design as combining the look he wanted with the clarity required at final stamp size. The font included the diacritical mark — an apostrophe was not used. The final stamp art was reviewed with the governor’s office as well as other experts, both in Hawai‘i and on the mainland.

So is there a mistake on the Hawai‘i statehood stamp? We don’t think so. Why not buy a pane and decide for yourself?