“A 9th-century Qur’an, Near East, in horizontal format, written on parchment in kufic script, with red dots for vowels and green dots indicating the glottal stop. The large gold roundel marks the end of a tenth verse.” Or. 1397, ff. 18v-19. [1]

Speaking of the conventionality of written/printed language: one experience that can make the nature and limits of that conventionality immediately clear and palpable is the experience of a second language, an-other-language, especially if that language is rendered in a completely different alphabet.

While working on the Al-Mutanabbi broadside project I got to learn a small amount of Arabic and the basics of how the written language works. It’s interesting how the “idea” can be the same (a phonetic language) but the implementation can be completely different. Completely different but still able to be comprehended and used. An-other technology.

“An 11th- or 12th- century Qur’an, from Iraq or Persia, written on paper in the Qarmatian style of eastern kufic script. The older system of red dots indicating vowels is combined with black vowel signs still in use today.” Or. 6573, ff. 210v-211. [2]

The Arabic alphabet contains 29 letters, and each of those letters changes shape depending on where it falls in the word. Each character has a form for when it stands alone, when it begins a word, when it is in the middle of a word, and when it is at the end of a word. Like the “long s” that appears in old English, or the slight alterations that occur in English cursive letters to link them properly to the letter following them.

“Detail from the colophon page of volume three of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, 1305-6, with the signature of the master illuminator, Abu Bakr Sandal, inscribed in the ornamental semi-circles (right).” Add. 22408, f. 154v. [3]

The Arabic alphabet reads right-to-left. Apparently, this is a huge “problem” for design programs (like Adobe InDesign) but not so much for word processing programs, like Microsoft Word. Or maybe not a problem for the software but for the user who has to buy a second version of InDesign in order to properly set Arabic. But one can hack one’s way through the Arabic in the left-to-right version of InDesign using the “Glyphs” palette, much like setting metal type out of a case. An-other language.

“A 17th-century Qur’an from Persia written in nashki script, with an interlinear Persian translation in red nasta’liq script.” Or. 13371, ff. 313v-314. [4]

[…] [T]he Arabic language […] belongs to the Semitic family of scripts which includes among other Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac. A common feature of all these languages is the fact that their alphabets are composed almost entirely of consonants, vowel signs being added only later to facilitate reading. […] [5]

A detail of the previous image.

It’s interesting to compare these manuscript Qur’ans to the European manuscript books, to see how they are similar and how they are different. How the rules of each culture (like the fact that illustration was forbidden in the Qur’an) helped to determine how the conventions of the written language developed. Paying attention to the conventions of various other languages can help us deconstruct our own, to pay attention to it, to dwell in it more fully, and to utilize it more incisively.

1. Colin F. Baker, Qur’an Manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design, (London: The British Libray, 2007), 20-1. The numbers after each caption designate which manuscript and pages the images are from. All of the manuscripts are currently held at the British Library.

2. Ibid., 24-5.

3. Ibid., 46.

4. Ibid., 78-9.

5. Ibid., 13.

No comments: