Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

(calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy)

Gutenberg’s revolution, which made possible many other technological revolutions in Western Europe and North America, couldn’t have happened without two highly significant characteristics of the Roman alphabet. First, the isolated nature of its letterforms and, second, the fact that the shape of each letterform is wholly independent of its context.

Visual language says a great deal about a culture and in particular these two alphabetic characteristics say a great deal about that of ‘the West’. This was a culture that valued the breaking down of things into simple, consistent and context-independent components - so as to exercise greater control and effectiveness over those things - whether the ‘thing’ in question was a system, a process or an aesthetic composition. And the monks of the mediaeval scriptoria, whose incanabulae Gutenberg so carefully copied, clearly understood this: they had produced the alphabetic characteristics that enabled Gutenberg’s revolution to facilitate a proto-industrial process of document production. It was this emphasis on decontextualisation – literally, separating the letterform from its context – that later gave birth to the stripped back aesthetic of modernist typography.

The Arabic alphabet, which was common to all of the languages of the Islamic world (principally Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu) provided a different trajectory to modernity. Arabic may only have 28 letters but in writing the appearance of each one of those letters depends, critically, on whether it appears at the beginning, middle or end of a word (and in fine calligraphy this is extended to include a much wider range of variations). Furthermore, although its letterforms are no less considered than their Roman counterparts, each is valued less, aesthetically, than the beauty of the unique word shape they contribute to (and, indeed, than the form of the whole text). The Arabic letter is inseparably part of a whole – which makes for exquisite calligraphy, dependent entirely upon the fine judgment of the calligrapher – but does not lend itself to a simple, repeatable set of mechanical rules.


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