If a movie or cartoon is set in a particular period or region, the creator may want to show certain details to the audience through a sign in the background. However, if most of the audience is educated in the English language, it is not practical to use an actual foreign language. So in order to avoid breaking the feel of the setting, the scene will just have English text written with a typefaceemulating the writing style of that regionor period.
This can also occur on the covers of books or on movie posters in order to evoke the feel of the work's setting.
Compare The Backwards R. See Translation Convention for the spoken version. This is the visual equivalent of Just a Stupid Accent. Some "sketchier"-looking fonts can fall into Unfortunate Implications. If the font is so weird that you can't make out what the letters are meant to be, it's Wingdinglish.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
The English-language cover art for Excel♥Saga, both anime and manga, uses a Japanese-styled font for the title. Bonus points for using actual katakana characters turned Latin characters.
The kanji in Black Butler's title are written in the style of Old English blackletter calligraphy, reflecting the show's Victorian English setting. (No, really; see its page illustration!)
Sometime around the Hoenn Saga in the Pokémon anime, the producers used a faux-Japanese text on signs, letters, etc., to make it more "acceptable" for a global audience.
It appeared earlier in the series too. It doesn't even try to look Japanese a lot of the time, it looks like mixed up symbols.
One scene in One Piece had a close up of Luffy's first bounty poster. Oddly, in a world that speaks English, has English signs, and English words right on the bounty poster, the Fine Print is nothing but a random assortment of letters and characters.
Typesetting, one of the major tasks in creating anime fansubs, involves finding or in some cases creating fonts to match onscreen Japanese text, which are then placed over or near the original text.
DC Comics is fond of its use of "Interlac", a universal language of the future which naturally just looks like the Latin alphabet redone in some "spacey font".
Used extensively in Astérix, not only for writing but also in the Speech Bubbles of characters speaking foreign languages. Egyptians speak in hieroglyphics, Normans in the suitably Scandanavian-styled alphabet (with å and ø for a and o), Greeks uses the proto-Greek angular font, the Goths in blackletter, the Amerindians in pictographs, and Romans tend to get into Trajan-esque capitals when getting eloquent (with V replacing U). Attempts by characters to speak another language are often shown as written in the appropriate font, but jumbled-up or ragged.
Asterix the Legionary features an Egyptian named Ptenisnet, who speaks in hieroglyphs and must have an interpreter in order for the reader anyone to understand him. (His name is a drawing of a tennis net.) He is interpreted by a polyglot clerk who speaks all fonts languages.
Also occurs (obviously) in Asterix and Cleopatra, but mainly with secondary characters.
Various letterers use interesting fonts to represent people who have an accent or are speaking an alien language.
In Blue Beetle, the Scarab-speak letters correspond to English, but they're almost entirely illegible. However, when the Scarab gets Character Development, the letters change into more readable English while still invoking the previous version.
The French cover (but not the English cover) of Tintin Land Of Black Gold has the words "L'or Noir" written in pseudo-Arabic calligraphy. The Arabic writing underneath is a correct translation of the title (though it wasn't in the first edition; this particular book was revised many, many times).
In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, most non-English speech is actually rendered in the original language. In the case of the Martians, their language is depicted using heavily-distorted mirror writing.
Thor writers like to give his dialogue a calligraphic font.
Inverted in "Superdupont vs. Bruce Lee" cartoon by Gotlib. Superdupont uses the usual comic Symbol Swearing, peppered with some Chinese-looking symbols. Bruce Lee retorts with the same swearing symbols-only the Chinese add-ons are replaced with ABCDEF.
The title of Animesque comic Deity is rendered on the cover in a font based on Japanese katakana - to the point that it takes a moment to realize you're actually looking at English.
Used to a great extent in Fables. The occasional Backwards R makes something instantly Russian.
Films — Animated
Aladdin: Crazy Hakim's Discount Fertilizer is written in Arabic brushstrokes on a sign near a cart of manure near the end of the "One Jump" chase scene. The title itself and the opening credits also appear in Foreign-Looking Font. No real Arabic appears in the movie at all, with the possible exception of a sign over Jafar's door; it's either English in a foreign-looking font or random scribbles that look like what Arabic looks like to people who don't speak Arabic. (Arabic Is Just A Bunch Of Scribbles should be a trope.)
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings has both: Although lots of texts appear 'properly' written in J. R. R. Tolkien's constructed scripts for Middle-earth, various instances of text are rendered as English in Latin letters for the convenience of the viewer, but made to look vaguely likenote written in American Uncial font the scripts they are supposed to be. Most notable is probably the Tengwar-imitating font (an originally Elven script, but universally used), even down to the tehtar diacritics, which in proper Tengwar are vowel signs and here are added to the corresponding vowel letters.
Quantum of Solace used exotic fonts to label each country the story takes place in. Maddox criticized this use of the trope in his review of it, saying that its use crossed the line into pretentious and implies that Viewers Are Morons.
Street Fighter takes place in the vaguely Southeast Asian country of Shadaloo, where all signs are written in English with pseudo-Thai characters.
Several Fu Manchu book covers (and movie and television posters) often feature English words written in Asian brushstrokes.
In the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett sometimes plays with this. For example, in Jingo, dialogue in Klatchian is written in an Arabic font, and words written by the golems are in an archaic font, to invoke their background in Judaic myth.
From the Annotated Pratchett File:
The font used by the golems in the UK editions is clearly designed to look like Hebrew lettering. For some reason, the font used in the American editions is not.
In "Feet of Clay", the Golems use the Hebrewish looking font. In "Making Money", Golems use the Eochian alphabet created/discovered by Doctor John Dee, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I.
Überwaldian is shown with a blackletter font.
In some of the books, strong accents are indicated by a change of font mid-sentence, sometimes around a single letter.
When someone is speaking Klatchian, they have the whole sentence in the pseudo-Arabic font. When they're speaking Morporkian with a Klatchian accent, the letter that changes font is usually an H. If you actually know anything about Arabic, this is a bit of a Bilingual Bonus, because there are three Arabic letters that can be transliterated as H, and they all sound different.
lampshaded in Jingo by 71-Hour Achmed, who is posing as a sort of 'joke' Klatchian for reasons of his own. His "H'I go, h'I come back' phrase is based on a character in the once-popular 1940s BBC radio series ITMA.
The Thursday Next series features an ancient prophet who speaks "Old English"... that is, his dialogue is written in Old English font. One character can understand him (as well as the reader, of course), but the rest really do behave as though he were speaking an ancient dialect.
And then there's the native language of the Book World, which is Courier Bold.
In the Doctor Who episode "Turn Left", the signs saying Bad Wolf are in English but in a Chinese-looking font.
In The Fires of Pompeii, all writing is rendered in English in a Latin-looking font.
Justified in-universe, as the TARDIS automatically translates languages, both spoken and written, into the language the companion speaks.
Hold on - English *is* written in a Latin-looking font, one that looks so Latin-looking it's actually *called* Latin.
In the Doctor Who episode "The End of the World", "Have a Nice Day" is seen on the Doctor's parking/valet ticket for the Tardis, in an extremely stylised 'futurefont', echoed in various other writings seen in that episode.
Eurobeat label Hi-NRG Attack's Eurobeat Anthems album has its title written in mock katakana script.
One of the Chemical Brothers' albums uses an Arabic-styled font.
The phenomenon of the Heävy Mëtal Ümlaut is born of the sentiment that Fraktur is not Teutonic enough by itself. (It could instead be that Fraktur is all-but-unreadable to anyone not very familiar with it ... there are numerous letters that are nearly indistinguishable if you're not aware of the conventions. Adding an Umlaut to Blackletter, which is not the same as Fraktur but looks similar, conveys the "Teutonicness" with the added bonus that people born aoutside Germany, or even inside Germany but after say 1940, can read it.)
The cover text of Nothing but Noise's Not Bleeding Red is written in an Aurebesh-style script.
Adolf Kilroy, a tortoise who turned up from time to time in The Perishers, not only had Hitler's face but also spoke in Fraktur.
A video game of The Hunt for Red October featured English text in an imitation Cyrillic font.
Red Alert 3 had recently joined the faux-Cyrillic bandwagon, given the nature and setting of the game.
688: Attack Sub similarly used a fake-Cyrillic font (all Rs are reversed, Es are 3s, etc) when playing a mission from the Soviet side, but thankfully provided a key combination to reset text to the standard font.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess uses what at first appears to be Fictionary, but is in fact a very stylised English. This is notable because most other games use a cipher with a completely different alphabet instead.
Phantasy Star Online also uses its own signature font for English. It's a bit easier to read than the Zelda example.
Raw Thrills' movie tie-in arcade racer The Fast and the Furious: DRIFT (Tokyo got forgotten, apparently) takes this to a ridiculous level. The menus are outright padded with it, and every sign and billboard has at least some.
Shows up all over the place in Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII. The languages of their planets are basically English, except the alphabets are written with all sorts of crazy serifs and squiggles attached. The final boss of the latter even has the lyrics to his Image Song written on his body.
Hearts of Iron 3 uses this on the political map: neutral countries have their names in a 'typewritten' font, the Allies are sans-serif, the Comintern uses faux Cyrillic and the Axis (even Japan and its Chinese puppets) use Fraktur. If a nation joins a faction it changes fonts accordingly.
First Samurai uses a pseudo-Japanese font on the title screen. The sequel Second Samurai uses it for practically all in-game text.
RanaRama displays text in Runic-looking letters.
The title of Game Arts' PC-88 game Harakiri is written in vaguely Sino-Japanese-looking romaji. Considering that the game was only released in Japan, the title might have been intended to parody this trope.
The Amazing World of Gumball: In "The Refund", Gumball and Darwin pre-order a video game called "Cyberground BATTLE II" with "BATTLE" in the style of Chinese/Japanese characters. Arguably a confusing case of The Backwards R, with the "A" clearly a 太 and the "E" clearly a モ, the characters skewed to look more Roman/natural.
Hercules: The animated series has words written on buildings that are clearly English words made to look Greek.
Carol Twombly's Lithos typeface is based on Greek letters, though it has the Latin alphabet and Arabic numbers... though it is now frequently used for an African or Native American feel.
Look hard enough and you'll find fonts in fake Hebrew, fake Arabic, fake Japanese, fake Greek...
The free font site Dafont.com is full of them, as are myriad other free font sites.
A fake Korean font exists.
A fake Hindi font exists in which the letters are just written curvier and have a line on top.
The absolute king of this trope is Papyrus. It's generically foreign looking enough that it can stand in for nearly anything, from Greek, to Middle Eastern to Chinese. Papyrus is overused to the point where there's a blog dedicated to looking for it.
A lot of its usage probably comes from the one-two punch of it being both a foreign-looking and ancient-looking font.
Its overuse is such that the font-fetishising graphic design community can be roughly split into "people who hate Papyrus" and "Browncoats".
The logo for Delirium Tremens beer uses a fake Thai font.
The "Soy Vay" kosher marinade company uses a Hebrew-based font for its titles. It would make more sense than for Kikkoman to do it!
The Backwards R may give a good impression of Russianness, but for a double whammy, combine it with a font like Rodchenko or Pravda to get over-the-top hammy Sovietness.
The Nazis' infamous yellow star badges had the word "Jude" (or a local word for "Jew") printed on them in Hebrew-flavored Latin characters similar to Soy Vay's. This is most apparent on some Dutch "Jood" badges, which use the real Hebrew character mem sofit in place of Os.
The Chinese Restaurant Font. A Roman font meant to be reminiscent of the strokes of Chinese characters, which graces every Asian restaurant in the universe outside Asia itself.
This font has an Asian equivalent in what one might call "fake Western serifs". The covers of some well-known English-language classics that are translated into Japanese, such as works by James Joyce, sometimes feature Japanese characters with Western-style serifs clearly intended to give them a European look. Here's an example of one such font, for the curious.
Justified in that establishing and keeping a mood or theme is incredibly important—rule of thumb, if it's important enough to dress up the scene, it's important enough to dress up the font.
This is pretty much what the sub-group of Graphic Designers known as Typographers do for a living.
Use of (uppercase!) sigma for "E" makes something instantly Greek. But sigma's a consonant (S, specifically)! Eta's a vowel. Too bad it looks like an H...
Similarly, the substitution of V for U makes something instantly Latin. Never mind those J's, K's (as in Biggus Dickus), and W's, none of which the Romans had.
The Romans did use K, but it wasn't used often (Kalendae is the example the Other Wiki gives.)
Somewhere along the line, using completely linear, angular letters (such as a lozenge for "O") became "American Indian font". Most likely because summer camps do this, and these summer camps often have totem poles.