Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Between the middle ages and today, many ways of writing alphabetical characters were lost. Besides a variety of ligatures, conjoined letters , scribal abbreviations , and swash characters, and the "long s" with its own ligatures, one was the "half r". Like many of the practices listed, this variant form of that letter was originally devised either to save space while writing on expensive parchment or for aesthetic reasons.
This half "r" was first used just to follow the letter "o". It progressed to follow any letter that ended in a curved stroke. Hence it would be used following the letters "b", "o", and "p". Often it was used after "d", for in many of those old typefaces the vertical stroke of that letter was curled to the left. It never began a word. This symbol came in several different shapes, all of which were of x-height.
This character form also played a part in a common scribal abbreviation. The tail was extended to the right and a cross-bar was put through it, producing a figure very much like the ancient Greek symbol for the planet Jupiter. This stood for the Latin syllable ram as well as the genitive plural terminations, —orum and —arum. This abbreviation character could follow any other character.
Other Grotesque forms
Also found in Textura manuscripts is a very narrow second variant, in the form of one solid diamond atop another atop a vertical stroke.
Another form found in German typefaces was a variant of that previous, with the part of an "s" that looks like an integral sign atop something rather like a "c". This one can be found used also as the second "r" of a pair and following "e".
A fifth form, used in the eighteenth century in some French italic typefaces, was a derivative either of the Schrift form of the minuscule "r", or of similar typefaces used elsewhere. Its form was of a backwards "J" set just after the same shape rotated 180 degrees. They were separated by a space smaller than the stroke width between them, and the whole character was slanted as though it were cursive. As this typeface had the "d" that curved to the left, it was used after that character as well. By this time, though, the character was the same width as a regular "r", so it was maintained because it appeared to its users to have some elegance, or to remind them of prestigious old calligraphy.
Demise of the Half R
The idea of using this letterform may have been to save a bit of writing-space. But when paper became cheap and as typefaces changed, it didn't save much. And it was used in the wrong places to justify the line more easily, or because one more "r" was needed than could be found in the type case. When the letter ended up taking the same amount of horizontal space as a conventional "r", it was soon given up as an unnecessary variant. The half-r probably was not used in the British typefaces used during the American Revolution, or it would have been remembered by Americans, as is the long s. Nonetheless, the form of this letter is the reason why the cursive minuscule "r" does not look like any of the letters "r" found in print these days or on inscriptions.
The half-r is one of the few historic letters which has not yet been encoded in Unicode, making it unusable in digital documents. It has however been included in the Private Use Area of mediaevalist fonts:
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