Put a ring on it, part I

Major upheavals in printing technology, language, politics, and religion converged in the fourteenth century, setting the stage for a brand new nation — and a brand new letter. This is the story of how the Å came to be.

Late by European standards, the earliest printer to reach Sweden was Johann Snell in 1483. Travelling from Lübeck, he practiced in the Scandinavian countries, arriving in Denmark in 1482 before travelling to Stockholm the following year. The first printed book produced in Sweden that we can date with any accuracy — a collection of Latin fables called Dialogus creaturarum — came from Snell’s cloister press on Gråmunkeholmen (the name of the island was later changed to Riddarholmen). He finished the book in December 1483. Some scholars believe, however, that a Latin grammar by the Benedictine monk Remigius may have been printed even earlier.

In 1485, on commission from the Catholic archbishop Jakob Ulvsson, Snell produced a Latin liturgical book called the Missale Uppsalense. It was the first major work to be printed in Sweden. When Snell left the country, he was replaced by fellow Lübeck printer Bartholomeus Ghotan, who worked in Sweden from 1486 to 1487 before returning to Germany, leaving his types and press for his brother-in-law, Johann Fabri. Sources mention at least five printers active in Sweden between 1489 and 1500, but details are sparse. What is clear however, is that the first printed text in Swedish was the Articuli abbreviati, a letter of indulgence, in 1489. The name of the printer is unknown. In 1495, Fabri was assigned to print the second document — and the first book — to be typeset in Swedish, a translation of a devotional text by Jean Gerson, Aff dyäfwlsens frästilse. When Fabri died the following year, the only practicing printer left in Sweden at the turn of the century was his widow, and Ghotan’s sister, Anna Fabri. (Alphabettes represent!)

Left: Articuli abbreviati, a letter of indulgence from 1489, was the first printed Swedish text. Printer unknown. Right: A page from Aff dyäfwlsens frästilse (1495), the first printed book in Swedish, printed by Johann Fabri. A proto-umlaut form was employed to write the <æ> sound — a small “punctus” (dot) placed at top right above the letter (“ſyälffwan”, first word, fourth line). The mark is encoded in Unicode as “Combining dot above right” (U+0358), but sadly not currently supported in Medium’s text typefaces, FF Kievit and Charter.

The historical origins of the letter Å

After numerous conflicts with the Dano-Norwegians, the Swedes finally broke free from the Kalmar Union in the 1520s. On 6 June 1523, Gustav Vasa was elected king of Sweden. Swedes celebrate this date as “Svenska flaggans dag” — the National Day of Sweden. The newly formed nation was eager to distance itself from Denmark, and the German printers’ typefaces came equipped with a new mark that served the cause: the umlauta tiny superscript e placed above the letter. The German and was chosen to replace the Old Norse æ and ø. But where did the å come from?

Rendered in the German blackletter handwriting style known as Kurrentschrift, the e resembles a cursive Latin n. Leading theories suggest that the umlaut evolved from this form, resulting in the two dots we use today. However, early German literature contains many examples of both variants next to each other — even on the same page.

The phonetic evolution of the Old Norse á

The Old Norse language distinguished between a long and a short /a/ vowel by writing the long variant with an acute accent above it, like so: á. In medieval Scandinavia, the long vowel was generally marked by repeating the letter: aa. But language is not static. Gradual changes to the pronunciation of the long /a/ in the thirteenth century began manifesting themselves in writing: words previously written with an a or aa — like the word for the colour blue, bla (modern spelling: blå) — can be found written as variously as bloo, bloo, and blao (i. e. , /auː/ — the modern Icelandic pronunciation of á), or with an o marked by a small line or an inverted breve-like bow above.† One theory holds that the Danes borrowed, or adapted, this form from the Low German usage of the letter â, where the circumflex marks a back vowel.

† A similar mark is sometimes used in scribal abbreviations (p21, §4.26) to mark an omitted e. It can be seen in the Swedish manuscript Vadstena klosterregel (1451); see the word ſyſtrȃrna (systraerna — the sisters) in the first line.

In the earliest Swedish literature, the å sound is written with an o. Words like broder would be pronounced with that sound (to contemporary Scandinavians: brådher). Parallel to phonetic changes in the long /a/, pronunciation of the Swedish letter o evolved into a more closed /o/ sound, which is similar to the way the final vowel of ‘floor’ is pronounced in British English. This is how it is generally used today in the Scandinavian languages.

Some claim that the Codex aboensis manuscript (1450) contains an early instance of the letter å in writing, but the section containing the letter is a later addition, dated sometime between 1540 and 1560.

Nordisk familjebok claims that Swedish scribes had begun experimenting with a new way of writing the å sound in the later half of the 1400s — perhaps as a compromise between a and o, or perhaps as a modification of the Danish inverted breve-like marking. The book notes: “These new forms rarely appear in written manuscripts from the time, and not at all in the earliest printed Swedish documents.”

Religion, politics, and a brand-new letter

In 1525, Georg Richolff — yet another German printer from the Hanseatic port of Lübeck — was invited to set up shop in the royal book-printing press of Stockholm. Olof Persson — a clergyman, writer, judge, and major contributor to the Protestant reformation in Sweden, perhaps better known by his Latin moniker Olavus Petri — assigned Richolff to print Een nyttwgh wnderwijsning om menniskiones fall, in part based on Martin Luther’s Betbüchlein from 1522. The translation was led by Laurentius Petri, Olavus’ brother and Sweden’s first Protestant archbishop.

Completed in 1526, Een nyttwgh wnderwijsning contains the very first typographic representation of a new Swedish letter: a tiny superscript o placed neatly above the a.

Modern Swedish scholars suspect prior written examples exist, but offer no sources. Similar Norwegian claims must be dismissed. Diplomatarium norwegicum, a searchable listing of the 19,000 preserved Norwegian documents produced prior to 1570, contains just two examples predating Richolff (b. 11, nr. 57 and b. 16, nr. 96), but the originals have been lost. Only copies, written well after the å was established in printing, survive — one each in the national archives of Oslo and Stockholm.

Regardless of who originally penned the idea, the new letter resulted from an unusual convergence: the Swedish Å owes its existence to a major religious reformation, a groundbreaking technological invention, the founding of a brand new nation, and the ever-flowing tide of phonetic evolution and language modernisation.

From Latin abbreviations to diacritical marks

Diacritical marks, such as the tittle above the letter i or the dieresis above ä, have a precursor in early Latin writing. Scribal abbreviations, or sigla, served as abbreviated forms of common words and phrases. Remnants of this practice are still used today: for example, in the numero symbol () and in the ordinal indicators (primo) and (prima).

Petrus Caesaris’ and Johannes Stol’s roman fonts of 1473 show three abbreviated Latin sigla with a superscript o placed to the right of the letter: , and . Image courtesy of John Boardley (ilovetypography.com).

In medieval Germany (circa 1050–1350), the superscripted abbreviations played a more familiar role. Small letters above vowels () indicated a pronunciation between the base vowel (a) and the diacritic (ͤ ). The latest edition of Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch from the University of Trier lists a plethora of such superscript-letter diacritics employed in Middle German manuscripts. Among them can be found a familiar shape: an a topped by a tiny o: .

Johann Gutenberg’s groundbreaking invention in the 1450s coincided with major phonological changes in the German language: the transition from Middle to Early New High German. Most of the Middle German superscript-letter diacritics were lost in this transition — except for the umlauts and the ů, which were commonly found in the earliest printed German books.

Given Georg Richolff’s work from 1518–25 as a printer in Lübeck — a trade passed down from his family — it is safe to assume he would have been familiar with the Early New High German ů. It likely served as his model for the new Swedish å.

Note the monolinear treatment of the å in Een nyttwgh wnderwijsning.

Georg Richolff’s å

Readers with a keen eye will notice that Richolff’s mark does not look very much like an o. Next to the German e-umlauts, the ring appears thinner, and devoid of the thick-thin contrast of the broad nib pen — traces of which appear in the other accents.

The letter ů from a German translation of the Jutisch law (1401) shows clear traces of the broad nib pen.

As type is pressed onto paper, ink is absorbed by the material and spreads outwards from the impression, diffusing letters’ shapes. The smaller the letterform, the less precise the resulting image will be. While early written examples of ů show a strong contrast axis, the transition to print obscured the intended shape. It is easy to see how one could have misconstrued them as monolinear.

Various examples of rings and umlauts from the first century of printing.

There is a second piece of relevant information: both ů and å arrived on the scene at a time — and in places — where text was almost exclusively typeset in blackletter. Around this time, scribes started embellishing their fraktur and textura letters with appended flourishes — thin ornate lines made with the edge of the broad nib pen, and sometimes even with a pointed nib. The small size of the ring, a feature hard to preserve in poor printing conditions, invited a similar approach.

During the Renaissance, scribes started embellishing their fraktur and textura letters with appended flourishes. Illustration from Calligraphic Flourishing: A New Approach to an Ancient Art, by Bill Hildebrandt.

Å and the ring accent in other languages

Despite sporadic appearances, it would be another four centuries before the Norwegian and Danish aa was finally officially replaced by the Swedish å — in 1917 and 1948, respectively.

From Sweden, the new letter spread to other Nordic languages. It can be found in Elfdalian (a small language spoken in Älvdalen, Sweden), as well as Faroese, most of the Sami languages (Inari, Lule, Skolt, Southern, Ume, and Pite Sami), and in loanwords in Icelandic, Greenlandic, and Finnish. Even Cornish grammars contain the letter.

Modern adoptions of å dominate the European continent: in the alphabet used to write Bavarian-Austrian and Alemannic, two Upper German dialects, the Middle German å was reinstated with Merkle’s 1975 grammar. In Walloon — a language spoken in southern Belgium — å came with the système Feller in 1899. (Certain dialectologists also use an ). As North Frisia, a region in the north of Germany, was part of Denmark until 1864 (in fact, most people there also speak the South-Jutish dialect), it seems likely that North-Frisian usage of å was inspired by the Scandinavian languages. It only appears in modern sources in the Istro-Romanian language (spoken in Croatia) and the Bolognese dialect of Emilian-Romagnol (in north-east Italy). A ring accent is even placed below letters in the Italian Romagnol Santarcangelo dialect. And linguistic fascination with the Nordic languages is not limited to continental Europe: the Austronesian language Chamorro, native to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, added å to their orthography in 1983.

For students of Indo-European and Germanic languages, the variants å and ā̊ (with the ring sitting above the macron) are used in the Romanization of Avestan, and å in Nynorn — a reconstructed variant of the Norn language once spoken on the Orkney Islands and Shetland, and Caithness on mainland Scotland. Additionally, a combining ring below (U+0325) is an essential mark in any linguistic character set, as it is used to indicate syllabicity in the transliteration of Sanskrit. (Note that some transliteration systems use a dot below instead.) It is also used in the International Phonetic Alphabet to indicate voicelessness.

As for the letter ů, as used in the Czech Republic, the story is a similar one to the Swedish. In the sixteenth century, the pronunciation of /uo/ changed to /uː/, prompting a need to reflect this in written Czech. Reformationists with close ties to Germany brought the Early New High German ů with them and used it in the influential translation of the Czech Bible kralická. (The closely related Slovakian language writes the same sound with an ô after Martin Hattala’s 1852 grammar.) Also in Lithuania, German printing export established the ů, but here it fell out of use in the twentieth century.

Georg Richolff’s printing of Thet nyia testamentit, 1526.

The evolution of the ring

In Thet nyia testamentit, printed by Richolff later that same year, one can observe an å more in line with the German ů: a contrasted ring has been diffused by the printing process. This would remain the dominant style in the coming centuries, only occasionally interrupted by geometric treatments in large-scale settings.

According to historian Christian Axel-Nilsson, Cicero Mager Fraktur № 1, which can be found in the Norstedt collection of matrices, is designed by the Swedish printer Lars Salvius. The typeface is dated early 18th century.

What may be the first Latin typeface designed in Sweden, Lars Salvius’ Cicero Mager Fraktur № 1 (roughly dated to the early eighteenth century) interprets the ring as a monolinear circle. The same is true for the rest of the Nordstedt collection, and also the more recent Nordisk antikva (1906–10), a typeface initiated by Waldemar Zachariasson but designed by Friedrich Bauer at Genzsch & Heyse in Hamburg.

In Part II: Designing the letter Å

I pushed to finalise part I of this article before January 1st, because 2017 marks the hundredth anniversary of the letter Å in my native Norway. Its origins in print, however, can be traced back almost 500 years to a Hanseatic printer caught in the midst of major political, theological, technological, and phonological turmoil. This sets the stage for part II, in which I discuss the design of the letter in contemporary typefaces. While you are waiting, you might want to have a look at A brief timeline of Swedish type founding and Designing the letter Æ.

Copyediting by Caren Litherland. Thanks to Nasjonalbiblioteket, Florian Hardwig, Dan Reynolds, John Hudson, Ellmer Stefan, Jørgen Brynhildsvoll, Christopher Bergmann, and Karin Sterky at Kungliga biblioteket for patience and invaluable insight.


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Type designer at Monokrom Skriftforlag, www.monokrom.no