classification of Arabic letters

omar's picture

hi everyone,

i was wondering is there a classification system for arabic scripts? kind of like Vox-ATypI classification that makes it possible to classify typefaces in eleven general classes?

cheeeeers

Reed Reibstein's picture

From my limited knowledge of Arabic typography: The analogous classification is based on calligraphic styles, e.g. Naskh, Kufi, etc. For a quick reference, head to ArabicTypography.com, click on "Research," then "History," and explore the first two items. You can find more details in the book Arabic Typography.

Thomas Milo's picture

The traditional Arabic calligraphic classification (shesh qalam) is not at all analagous to the Latin typographic one.

Many of the Islamic calligraphic styles do not even survive in mechanized, typographic form. Surprisingly, perhaps, Kufi is among them. Typefaces that are sold as Kufi today do not have the characteristics of early Arabic. At best they can be described as nostalgic artist's impressions on the basis of simplified Arabic.

Early European attempts to produce Arabic typography, seen from a Middle Eastern, i.e., a user's perspective, have no relevance for the development of mechanized Arabic script. The reason is that 1. the designers cross-bred between the classic styles en 2. had no knowledge of the "script grammar". As a result, no such European design ever gained acceptance in the Middle East (with the possible exception of some Christian evangelist communities).

From the great calligraphic styles only Nastaliq, Ruq`ah, Thulth saw 19th century Middle Eastern typographic adaptations, but they are all extinct now (although there are some great computer-aided revivals produced in Iran and Pakistan). It was local Naskh typography that provided the point from where all modern Arabic typography derives - that's why the traditional calligraphic classification plays no role.

The 20th century Western industrial approach to Arabic, however, has hi-jacked practically all the Naskh-based developments. The western design focus was and still is "simplification", a euphemism for imposing Latin-based criteria without even bothering to figure out why Middle Eastern users do not consider their own script "complicated".

The latest development in this trend is to abandon Arabic characteristics all together and base the shapes completely on Latin typefaces, according to the professed ideal of certain Western-educated Arab designers.

Once that revolutionary process is completed - it may require more than just another troop surge - anyone can classify Arabic typography completely with Latin-based categories: Arabic Blackletter, Arabic Glyphic, Arabic Neo-Grotesque.

In the mean time, all this doesn't answer the question about true classification of Arabic typography. The truth is, it's not yet been done.

One prerequisite is, imho, a thorough understanding of Arabic "script grammar", the exhaustive analysis and description of the traditional contextual shaping system, something that I hope to contribute to. It will help to define the difference between locally produced "grammatically" consistent typography, and foreign imports, usually much less informed random collections of ligatures.

Thomas Milo
DecoType
www.decotype.com

John Hudson's picture

Further to what Tom has written -- with which I completely agree -- the collapse of Arabic typography into a horizontal line of minimal shape variants has resulted in attempts at typeface classification based upon only superficial similarities to calligraphic styles. Hence, we get classifications like 'Neo-Naskh' and 'Neo-Kufi' that distinguish the kind of shapes and details one sees in the letters while ignoring the fact that they are implemented with identical mechanical models that bear no relationship to the distinct grammars of the styles whose names they borrow.

Latin typography happened to develop during a period when the contemporary formal manuscript hands involved relatively little interaction between letters, and the principle typographic styles derived from those models further reduced this interaction until ‘ligatures’ became only very occasional exceptions to the sequential arrangement of individual letters in a line. But these are not the only models of Latin writing, nor are they the only ones to be represented in type, nor are they the ‘end of the line’, the peak of evolutionary adaptation: scribes before and since have invented new ways of writing. There are styles of Latin writing that have grammars as complex as Arabic naskh, grammars that determine what forms of letters connect to what other forms, what kinds of connection are forbidden, how to disambiguate similar letters, etc. When these styles have been reduced to typography, they have tended to be simplified for mechanical purposes: a typeface like 'Shelley Allegro' is to the 18th century roundhand of George Shelley what a 'neo-naskh' is to real naskh.

Today, we have technologies that allow us to much more accurately capture the grammar of a script style in typographic form. This suggests to me new systems of classification based on structural analysis rather than on superficial details.

But see also http://typophile.com/node/9757 for more general opinions on typographic classification schemes.

behnam's picture

I sent the link of this thread to a calligrapher friend of mine. He said it's like our archaeologic treasures. We have to rely on westerners to discover and introduce us better to our history.
Indeed, if we are smart enough not to dismiss an ugly broken old jar as garbage, we will sell it for a good price to westerner collectors! really sad.

We want to be modern. New and cosmopolite. Fine. But we don't realize all these happen inside the mind not in appearance. The evolution should come from inside out to be of substance. Not the other way.

Thomas Milo's picture

Behnam, thank your friend for his wise words. The naked truth that a 12th century calligraphic classification of a wealth of extinct styles does not help to categorize the shattered remains of their sole typographic incarnation.

Thomas Milo
DecoType
www.decotype.com

nadine_chahine's picture

> He said it’s like our archaeologic treasures. We have to rely on westerners to discover and introduce us better to our history.

I think there is enough appreciation and understanding of the calligraphic legacy within the Arab/Muslim world. The problem lies in the divide between those who have a full understanding of the aesthetics and mechanism of the script, and current technology.

What Arabic typography needs is a vision of how the script interacts within the realms of visual communication today, independent of technical constraints. Between ACE and OpenType, we designers can focus more on the design: what we actually *want* to design, rather than what current technology will allow us to.

The Latinization going on within Arabic branding and advertising design is deplorable, and the results hideous. But at the same time, we need not be afraid to play a little bit. The most important is to have a deep understanding and appreciation for the script, its various styles, and the basic concepts of type design.

Whether we love or hate the body of work available today, we still need to be able to classify it. For my PhD studies, I refer to Simplified Naskh (as developed by Linotype in the 50's and usually characterized by Yakout) which mostly has 2 contextual forms per character, Traditional Naskh which has 4 forms and a number of ligatures (good example is Lotus), and Calligraphic Naskh with multiple dynamic forms such as Decotype Naskh powered by Tasmeem.

This is very basic classification based on a quantitative approach. It can be further developed of course. This approach does not have a judgmental aspect to it so it does not try to elevate one style over the other. It merely counts the variants.

John Hudson's picture

Nadine, I think the quantitative approach is a reasonable one to take to the results of the technology, but the labels are problematic. Since the technical simplification applied in Yakout isn't limited to styles that evoke naskh in their stroke construction, I'd be inclined to call this ‘Simplified Arabic’, rather than Simplified Naskh. And the label ‘Traditional’ doesn't seem to me to fit with the four-shape model, since there isn't a single traditional style in which this is the case. So perhaps, taking a purely technical view of this model, we might call this ‘Basic Arabic’, in that it corresponds to the common, and Unicode, description of Arabic dual- and right-joining forms. Following this approach, I would probably call the DecoType Naskh something like ‘Analytical Arabic’ or ‘Grammatical Arabic’ in that it seeks to capture the full set of rules that governs a particular style of the script. This suggests a fourth category of hybrid fonts that build on top of Basic Arabic but either do not attempt to capture the full rule-set of a style or fail to do so. I would call these ‘Synthetic Arabic’; the Microsoft Arabic Typesetting font would be an example.

behnam's picture

And what category would be Arabic Tahoma? The most viewed Arabic typeface on the planet?
Many languages of Arabic script don't even have the meager luxury of choosing between few fonts. They have to use Tahoma that covers them all. And also because it sustains best the poor visual rendition of the text in small size on PC screens, for their lack of antialiasing.
This is not about elitism. It's the foundation of a culture that is at stake. A culture that has Siaah Mashgh (black draft) which is a textual composition that isn't even meant to be read. Just to be looked at.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that Arabic typography should address such art forms. They should remain in creative hands of artists. What I'm suggesting is that a culture, with such high value for textual design, should not and will not be reduced to Tahoma, which has effectively numbed the sense of aesthetics of a whole generation.

nadine_chahine's picture

John, you raise good points. The terms I mentioned were specifically focused on analyzing the body of existing Naskh typographic styles. This is why I use modifiers for the term Naskh. You are right to note though that this approach could fit other styles too. For Traditional Naskh, my reasoning was that this 4-form analysis was the traditional typographic approach to rendering Naskh. I have also noticed that Fiona used that term in the Lotus font description. So, the "traditional" is referring to typographic history and not the calligraphic one. For the Calligraphic, both "grammatical" and "analytical" are viable options. I'm not very happy with the term "calligraphic" as it seems to refer to the design and not the construction method. I'm thinking the term "dynamic" might be better. Thankfully I have some time before I have to decide!

You are right regarding the 4th category. The OpenType features add sophistication which is not there in the first 2 categories. It's sort of Traditional+ since it still maintains the 4 forms as the basic analytical approach.

John Hudson's picture

Benham: And what category would be Arabic Tahoma? The most viewed Arabic typeface on the planet?

From a variant-quantitive perspective, this is Basic Arabic, and a good demonstration that this classification system deliberately avoids distinguishing design styles. A secondary classification system describing styles can be appended. So you have a two-part descriptor: one for the methodology of the technical implementation and one for the style of letter. I suspect the French terminology for Latin types adapts better to Arabic than the English terminology, which is too much concerned with the presence of absence of serifs. Hence, Tahoma might be called something like Basic Lineal.

Nadine: For Traditional Naskh, my reasoning was that this 4-form analysis was the traditional typographic approach to rendering Naskh.

But was it? It is certainly the mechanical typographic approach, but the evidence of Analytical Arabic implementations in handset metal type originating in the Ottoman context can't be ignored. This is why I think the term Traditional is inappropriate: the typographic tradition is too diverse for this to be a useful term.

nadine_chahine's picture

John: Yes I was more thinking of hot metal and digital implementations which have a stronger presence in dtp today. Still, the Ottoman example would then belong in the analytical/dynamic category.

I'm not so sure about the term Basic for the 4-form category. It implies that this is the minimum requirement though that would be the Simplified. I checked to see the exact meanings:

# [adj] of primary importance; "basic truths"
# [adj] serving as a base or starting point; "a basic course in Russian"; "basic training for raw recruits"; "a set of basic tools"; "an introductory art course"
# [adj] pertaining to or constituting a base or basis; "a basic fact"; "the basic ingredients"; "basic changes in public opinion occur because of changes in priorities"
# [adj] reduced to the simplest and most significant form possible without loss of generality; "a basic story line"; "a canonical syllable pattern"

I think you might be referring to the 3rd meaning, and I keep reading it as the 4th meaning.

So, what else can we call it?

John Hudson's picture

I guess what I'm saying is that 'traditional' is too loaded a term for what is, after all, a mechanically-derived -- not culturally-derived -- model.

I’m not so sure about the term Basic for the 4-form category. It implies that this is the minimum requirement though that would be the Simplified.

I don't see it that way. 'Simplified' implies something simpler than basic. I use basic in your second sense of 'serving as a base or starting point'. From that starting point, you can move up -- to synthetic or analytic models -- or down to simplified models. 'Basic Arabic' is what is captured in Linotype Arabic Norm 1.

Saad Abulhab's picture

Nadine wrote:

>>The Latinization going on within Arabic branding and advertising design is >>deplorable, and the results hideous. But at the same time, we need not be afraid to >>play a little bit. The most important is to have a deep understanding and >>appreciation for the script, its various styles, and the basic concepts of type >>design.

What is even more damaging is the scandalous and well orchestrated and organized trend allowed by the rich Persian/Arab Gulf Arabs to practically force the next generations to abandon the Arabic language. The Turks dumped the Arabic script but kept their language, some Arab countries abandoned both their scripts and Language, but these oil shaikhs want to dump the language but keep the script! I can not understand this Bizarre behavior! I am not sure how (for example) customers would read a restaurant menu which writes فش فلليت or فاملي باك (for "fish fillet" and "family pack") instead of شريحة سمك or وجبة عائلية.

Bahnam wrote:

>>I sent the link of this thread to a calligrapher friend of mine. He said it’s like >>our archaeologic treasures. We have to rely on westerners to discover and introduce >>us better to our history.

The Muslim civilization re-introduced the Greek civilization back to sleeping Europe which was the enabling condition for the western renaissance. The Indians re-introduced the number Zero, invented originally and utilized heavily by the Mesopotamian Sumerians, back to Mesopotamia under the Muslims. This seems to be the nature course of the rise and fall of civilizations.

However, to passively rely on westerners to discover and introduce our past is bad. In my latest published article/study regarding the history of the Arabic script, I had to re-read in depth three heavily cited Arabic Nabataean inscriptions. al-Namarah, the most important one of the three was claimed by French Archaeologist Dusad, in 1902, to be the epitaph of King Umru' al-Qays bin Amru. My article (http://arabetics.com/more/History_of_the_Arabic_Script_article.htm) points out that his reading was fundamentally wrong. The details of my findings will appear in a second following in depth study that will be published next fall.

-Saad

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