3. Facing The Future
John M. Munro
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Since the invention of printing in the 15th century, artists, technicians and typographers have constantly experimented with new type designs to make the printed page easier and more attractive to read. But typographers in the Arab world, despite similar efforts, have always faced much more difficult problems than those in the West.
Printing in a Western European language, which uses the Latin alphabet, involves approximately 60 letter forms, including small letters, capital letters, commas, apostrophes, dashes and so forth. Printing in Arabic, however, depending on the typeface used, can involve up to 450 forms—more than seven times as many.
It is not that the Arabic alphabet contains many more letters than does the Latin; there are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet as opposed to 26 in the Latin. But most letters of the Arabic alphabet have four different forms, depending upon their position in the word—that is, whether they come at the beginning, middle, end or stand in isolation. This, of course, is a result of the cursive nature of Arabic script; many of the same problems would result from an attempt to print a European cursive hand. In Arabic, for example, the letter h, or "ha", may appear in any of the following forms: (see original copy for graphics).
In practice, however, some letters have more than four different forms, depending on the shape of the letter which precedes and follows them. The letter m for example may appear in as many as 73 different guises.
In most cultures, handwriting developed from the printed form of the language. Arabic, however, has been cursive from the beginning; with only a few exceptions the letters forming each word must be joined to each other and there is no such thing as "printing" in Arabic, for the letters cannot stand in isolation. It is the printing of the ligatures which join the letters, attached as they are at different points, that makes printing Arabic so difficult.
Gutenberg, when he set his famous Bible in Mainz more than 500 years ago, only needed one basic piece of type for each letter of the alphabet—not counting, of course, multiple forms of the same letter—while in 1849, when the American Mission Press in Beirut printed an Arabic Bible, no less than 900 characters were used -and even this number was felt to be insufficient. The closer the printer wishes to approximate elegant handwriting, with its variations in the size and height of the letters, the more characters he needs. The great complaint leveled by Ibrahim Muteferrika against the productions of the Medici Press was that the Arabic type was inelegant; he was referring to the restricted number of basic letter forms which gave the page a mechanical look inconsistent with the canons of Arabic calligraphy.
As long as printed texts in Arabic were set by hand, composition was slow and laborious, but still quite practicable. Once the typesetter had familiarized himself with the physical positions of the multiplicity of characters on his working table, he would pursue his task and eventually produce a frame of type for printing—although in a much longer period of time than his Western counterpart.
The real challenge to Arabic printing came with the introduction of mechanical composition—the linotype machine by which typesetters, at a keyboard similar to that of a typewriter, typed out a full column-width line of type in metal. A Western invention designed to facilitate the printing of texts in Western languages, linotype keyboards were constructed to utilize the number of characters used by Western printers—and were therefore not readily adaptable for printing Arabic script.
Fortunately, however, linotype machines had larger keyboards than those of an ordinary typewriter, as they were designed to accommodate two fonts at the same time: Roman and Italic, or Roman and Bold. This meant that there was room for the integration of about 120 characters within the machine, and a Lebanese immigrant journalist in the United States, Salloum Mkarzel, noticing this, was able, after World War I, to compose his Arabic daily Al-Huda on a linotype newspaper machine utilizing 122 forms.
In the 1950s the late Kamel Mrowa, a publisher in Lebanon, reduced Mkarzel's font to 88 characters and until its demise during the recent civil war in Lebanon, the daily Al-Hayat was regularly printed with it. As a result of such advances, Arabic linotype machines have developed rapidly in the Arab world during the past 20 years.
But as Arabic linotype machines were being introduced in the Arab world, along with monotype setting, type-setting technology in the United States and Europe was changing again. The most significant development was undoubtedly the introduction of a process whereby the text is set photographically; a computer-controlled light, flashing through a filmed letter, registers it directly on a sheet of film, like a lens registering a photograph on film. These new systems are at least 10 times faster than the old linotype process which stamped the letters in metal.
In Arabic printing, computerized typesetting is distinctly superior to the linotype since the computers "matrices" are capable of accommodating as many as 600 letter forms, even though the keyboards have remained essentially the same size as those of traditional composing. More important, filmed type faces and computer science can produce the correct form of a particular Arabic letter, whose design is determined by the letters which precede and follow-freeing the compositor from having to decide himself which form to use. On these new machines, Arabic texts can now be typeset more rapidly and more correctly than ever before.
In spite of such dramatic innovations, there are still problems. Since Arabic printing techniques have until very recently been adaptations of Western technology, little research has been done into the readability of various Arabic type faces.
Though Arabic typography has reflected changes of esthetic taste, a script pleasing to the eye is not necessarily the most readable. In the West considerable research has been undertaken to design fonts that are both elegant and easy to read, but whether these discoveries have relevance for Arabic readers is not yet known, and more research is needed to ascertain the Arabic reader's response to the variety of type faces with which he is daily confronted. Are the typefaces difficult to read? Do they slow reading speeds? Is there a serious esthetic loss?
From the beginning of Arabic type design by Raimondi and Granjon in 16th century Italy, typographers have unanimously based their type faces on some form of the Arabic calligraphic style called naskhi—and most still do. But as typefaces have developed, they have tended to become heavier and less attractive, and are now a far cry from the elegant naskhi hand of the calligraphers, with its irregular heights, gentle stems, and delicate curves. As a result newspaper headlines are usually the work of calligraphers rather than typesetters, because the ugliness of present-day types tends to be accentuated when enlarged. In many modern newspapers, moreover, a wide variety of calligraphic styles is used in addition to the naskhi form used for most of the text. Arab children learning to read must, therefore, learn to distinguish between a multiplicity of variations in the forms of their alphabet.
The problems—and challenges—of Arabic printing are of serious concern to typographers, printers and educators throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Recently, serious efforts—including open competitions—have been made to seek new solutions to the problems of Arabic type design. Anyone who is able to design a simplified, elegant standardized type face, which compositors can use quickly and effectively, and readers readily understand, will make a significant contribution to the art of typography.
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by: FSTC Limited, Fri 22 August, 2008