by Thomas Milo, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The study contains 3 parts. Each can be downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat PDF File.
The first part of this tutorial has the subtitle "Backgrounds". It is in this part, that I want to expand with relevant historical information about the development of the alphabet in general and the Arabic alphabet in particular.
The second part, with the subtitle "Aesthetic and Technical Challenges" dwells on the problems and solutions relative to reproduce Arabic mechanically. During the talk I shall expand with a more precise account of the excellent Middle Eastern typographic technologies and why they vanished during the first half of the 20th century.
Together they will serve as a case study of cross-cultural technology.
Before the invention of photography, 19 th century travelers often were accompanied by artists. Their meticulous drawings reveal an interesting blind spot in these observers’ minds. The famous David Roberts R.A. does not depict a single letter of Arabic 1. Others seriously try to reproduce Arabic script with varying success: this drawing of the interior of the Hagia Sophia Church, alias Aya Sofya Mosque 2 , includes some of the large calligraphic tableaux with the names of the caliphs (visible are the names of: Ali, Umar, Husain, Hasan and Abu Bakr). The delicate beauty of the building is captured with an eye for subtle detail. None of that subtlety remains of the Arabic calligraphies. What does remain is the visual equivalent of Van Beethoven’s Für Elise as played by a cell-phone. This alarming lack of perception still pervades all attempts to deal with Arabic script.
This write-up discusses some of the theoretical aspects of Arabic font technology as an introduction. RTL font structure is in fact a misleading term. RTL behaviour as such is text feature that is covered by the Unicode BiDi (bi-directional) Algorithm. However, within the class of RTL scripts, we encounter a subgroup of scripts whose structure can be classified as “allographic”.
Alphabetic writing basically is graphemic in a way that each grapheme is a form that, ideally, corresponds to a phoneme in the language represented. In the case of allographic alphabets, the grapheme has no single definable form. Rather the grapheme becomes an abstraction that equals the sum of all possible forms required to render a certain grapheme: the allographs. Being the most elaborate of all of allographic scripts, historical Arabic serves as a representative example.