The Fraktur Factor

Picture this…

Sample Fraktur fonts

Sample Fraktur fonts

The internet is a wonderful place. Talk about taking down barriers between peoples! Not only can one download websites half the world away, but Google translate will be happy to turn them into your language of preference if you click the right button. And Google isn’t the only place to get things translated. There are any number of free sites that will translate a word or an entire page as you desire.

So naturally, I felt it wouldn’t be all that hard to get the gist of some of these old German books that have been occupying my time lately: head on over to my favorite site,, set it for German to English, type in the German words, click a button, and voilà! (It does English to French, too.) There’s only one little catch: before any typing of German words into translation tools can begin, it is necessary to know what letters to use.

Unfortunately, that’s not a simple matter for most German language text published in the five centuries leading up to World War II. (Waldon Font has a nice little history on this.) When it comes to complicated, ornate glyphs where every tiny swirl and serif matters, Chinese calligraphy doesn’t hold a candle to some intricate German fraktur characters. And there is not just one font to learn, but any number of them. German printers seemed particularly fond of loading up their title pages with tangles of swirls and spikes that purported to represent the letters of their title. (See the caps illustrated in the Magdeburg font in the table at right.)

Speaking of the table illlustration, I have raided the following two fine sites for their free downloads of fraktur fonts: 1. I got the Kleist-Fraktur from ; 2. the Fraktur and Magdeburg samples were from German American Corner.

Which one of these is not like the other?

It is both biased and unfair to say that all Fraktur characters look alike. As far as I know, that’s only true of capital I and capital J, and then only in some fonts. What is true is that some characters, if not identical twins, are certainly fraternal twins, triplets, or even quadruplets.

Test your knowledge of fraktur fonts by scrolling slowly enough to keep the English hidden until you are ready to guess:

Capital A and U in three fonts

The sample at left shows all three fonts I’ve chosen for my illustrative table, Kleist-Fraktur, Fraktur, and Magdeburg, in that order. This is the only sample in this post that will include Magdeburg, since Magdeburg is so ornate that — at least to my untrained eye — all the capitals look alike. In this sample, it isn’t so much that the fraktur A and the fraktur U look alike, but that the fraktur A standing alone can easily be mistaken for a U to someone more used to a roman font. Trust me on this, I’ve done it dozens of times.

This next is a sample from the Fraktur font. A close look will reveal that the interior space of the B, the counter, is divided into two distinct parts which are completely separated from each other. The counters of the P and V both consist of a single connected white area. In addition, the P has a descender.

These three letters can be virtually indistinguishable in some fonts, as they are in the Kleist-Fraktur shown. In the D, the stroke forming the bowl of the letter starts to the left of the stem and goes over the top, while it starts at the top of the stem for the O and Q. As in a roman typeface, the Q, differs from the O by a single small stroke in the lower right quadrant.

In some fonts, the I and J are identical, although in the two glyphs from the Kleist-Fraktur example on the left, they are slightly different. One way to tell which you’ve got is that I will appear before consonants and J before vowels. In some fonts, as in two glyphs from the Fraktur font pictured at right, the F is very like I and J except for the small stroke representing the arm.

From the Fraktur font, E and G are another pair that can easily be mistaken for each other at a quick glance. If you get out your magnifying glass, however, you will find that the interior space of the E, the counter, is not closed. Technically, it’s an aperture. The closed sort is an eye. The G has an aperture at the top, but the main counter space is an eye.

Also from the Fraktur font, K, N and R have similar outlines. The N has no eye, only an aperture, while the K and the R have both. K is very similar to R except for the right sweeping flourish above its bowl.

In yet another example from the Fraktur font, M and W have many similarities, but the W has eyes while the M has aperatures. In some fonts, the M may have one eye and one aperture.

Moving from capitals to small letters, the most often mentioned look-alikes are the long S (on the left of the image) and the small F (on the right). The F has a small arm which extends to the right of the body stem of the letter. In some fonts (not shown) the small L is also very similar to the long S, having a curved top but no tail to the left of the stem.

Another set of letters which can be mistaken for each other are the small K, small L, and small T. All of them have small differences at the top of the letter which are easier to see when they are beside each other.

One of the more unexpected look-alikes are the small R and small X, which are shown in both Kleist-Fraktur and Fraktur. The X differs from the R by the addition of a small stroke that extends below the base line.

Last but not least, as we near the end of the alphabet, is the small Y. It looks virtually identical to the small N except that it has a very short descender. This one has fooled me time after time.

None of this has made me an expert in German, and certainly not fluent in any way, but at least I’m not longer totally bewildered by the swirls and flourishes of lovely German fraktur.

I don’t sell all of the books I write about, but if I have any books for sale of the kind that inspired this article, they would be found here, in German Language books.
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