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Lower-Case "2-r" in 16th Century English Black Letter Texts
Melvin H. Wolf

Readers of 16th century English books are generally aware that the black letter fonts of the period included two forms of lower-case "r" — the one which is still commonly used in roman type, and the form called "round-r" or, because of its similarity to the Arabic numeral "2", "2-r". It is generally known, too, that both forms derived from Medieval manuscript forms of the letter. What does not seem to be generally known is that a standard printing practice determined which form would be used each time the letter appeared, and that this standard practice was so consistently followed by English printers that deviations from it identify either typographic errors or idiosyncratic policies of particular compositors. (Such idiosyncrasies might well prove helpful for the identification of anonymous printers and compositors.) Apparently, much the same convention had been followed by some medieval scribes, but the scribal convention seems to have been followed less generally and less consistently than the printing convention.

A plain description of the convention followed by virtually all English printers from 1510 onward seems at first glance to be based on neither rhyme nor reason, but I believe that a principle was indeed at work, and that the principle was an aesthetic one. To begin with the description:

In 16th century English black-letter texts, the "2-r" form is used only and always when immediately preceded by:
  • 1) lower case b, d, h, o, p, w, and y,
  • 2) upper case B, D, O, P, and G,
  • 3) upper case W in those fonts in which the rightmost limb of that letter is rounded convexly.
It follows that the "2-r" form is not used as the initial letter of a word, since the immediately preceding piece of type would then be a space.

As case (3), above, suggests, the principle which seems to have been followed is simply this: letters ending in convex curves are followed by the "2-r" form; all other letters (and spaces as well) are followed by the other form.

This principle, if applied consistently, would seem to have demanded that upper-case H, M, and Y, in most black letter fonts, be followed by "2-r". Those letters are not listed in case (2) above, because I have encountered no instances in which those letters were followed by a lower-case "r"


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in either form, but when such instances are encountered, I predict the principle will hold.

Scholars of three kinds may find the following mnemonic phrases helpful when examining 16th century English black letter texts; each phrase includes all the lower-case letters which one may expect will be followed by "2-r".

  • Intellectual: why b dop?
  • Culinary: how b d py?
  • Sadistic: whyp bod!