Getting started with German typesetting

German is an important global language, with approximately 120 million native speakers and perhaps 80 million more who speak it as a second language. It is the main language of Germany and Austria, with a significant part of the Swiss population also having it as a mother tongue. There are also noticeable pockets of German speakers in Namibia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. In fact, German is one of the nine recognised regional languages of Namibia. There are some variations from country to country: for instance, a specific translation may be required for Swiss German.

The German language is particularly important in business, as Germany is an important member of the G8 and the European Union. The economy is the fourth largest in the world (by nominal GDP) and the fifth largest by purchasing power parity. Crucially, Germany has become a goods import/export powerhouse, being the world’s second largest exporter and third largest importer. In other words, Germany exports more than the entire USA. In fact, its exports amount to more than those of France and Japan put together. Going the other way, Germany’s colossal imports are greater than those of the UK and France combined. So, in business terms, German is important but what’s the deal when it comes to German typesetting?

Letters particular to German typesetting

German typesetting is relatively straightforward. Being a west European language, German makes use of the Latin script familiar to English speakers. There are some additions, however. An accent called an Umlaut appears as two dots above the letter and can be used on the vowels a, o and u. These accented letters can easily be typed on a Mac by typing alt u followed by the desired vowel. Windows as ever is more complicated, and you must use a ALT code for the occasional letter or active the International Keyboard.

There is also a letter that will be unfamiliar to English speakers: the “Eszett”. “scharfes s” or “ß”. Again this is easily typed on a Mac with alt s. Technically this character is a ligature, having its roots in a combination of a long s and a short s. Nowadays in some German words, it replaces a double s. The rules regarding which should be used have been updated several times, most notably in the spelling reform of 1996.

Use of this letter is rare in Swiss German, where a double s is usually substituted.

When converting text to all caps, the scharfes s should be substituted with a double s. Good software, such as InDesign, should do this automatically.

German typesetting fonts

Nearly all commercial fonts should support the Umlaut and vowel combinations described above. Most support the scharfes s too. There is no special software required: your regular version of InDesign, Quark, Illustrator or whatever should work fine and even include spell checks and so on.

Quote marks and decimals

Correctly typeset German quote marks are different to English. The opening quote should be “facing” left and on the baseline while the closing quote should face right and be elevated.
English typesetting: this is a quote
German typesetting: Dies ist ein Spruch

In line with many European languages, German uses a comma as a decimal separator and a period as thousand separator. In other words, 1,25 is one and a quarter while 1.000 is one thousand.

Composing German typesetting

When designing an English master for subsequent German typesetting, bear in mind that a text story translated into German is typically 20% to 30% longer than the English. White space to grow into, or an anticipation of a reduced point size, is often helpful. Also German uses more long words, not least because nouns are often joined up to form compound nouns. This means hyphenation is often more aesthetically acceptable in German than in English, even in ragged text. However it can make narrow text columns or headline spaces problematic.

Dealing with this growth, and deciding how to split words, is one of the skills of German typesetting. InDesign’s hyphenation dictionary, as always, is ok although it’s not always great at spotting the most sensible spot to break a compound noun. This is pretty easily solved with some basic German and a discretionary hyphen. If you feel you need more there are many professional German typesetting services out there but where’s the fun in that?

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