Arabic language: “Tasmeem” computer script uses the secrets of calligraphy

When I signed up for Google feedreader, I also subscribed to a couple of language websites. They tend to be peopled by linguists with their own special esoteric sense of humor and a penchant for delving into the arcane aspects of medieval Irish or Russian literature. But every time I think about removing the feed to simplify my display, I get caught up in whatever they are saying and forget to delete it.

This week they surprised me by talking about Arabic.

I was always taught that Arabic letters have four forms depending on whether they are in a word: at the beginning, middle, end, or standing alone. Thomas Milo, the inventor of the Arabic computer script Tasmeem, just made writing Arabic letters even more difficult. Above is an exhibition in Amsterdam using the computer script to write the Corsi Aya from the Koran. Below he shows how the letter “ha” can be written in various forms depending on what form of the letter is used and what letters are attached to it.

If you have ever been puzzled by Arabic calligraphy, much less the handwriting of ordinary Arabs, this is absolutely fascinating. There is also a powerpoint presentation of Milo with audio describing the challenges in making the script into a computer language. A few minutes into the presentation is Milo’s not-to-be-missed overview of the history of the Arabic script with the original letter order–he describes it as being originally a “numerical” alphabet.

If that isn’t enough, Languagehat this week has discovered that the word “barrio” meaning “Spanish-speaking neighborhood” comes into the English language from Arabic through the intermediate stage of Spanish. Probably something they forgot to sweep out after the Reconquista. There are supposed to be some one hundred English words derived from Arabic. The only other one I know about is “potato”–Spanish “patata”, Arabic “batata” البطاطا.


5 Responses to “Arabic language: “Tasmeem” computer script uses the secrets of calligraphy”

  1. language hat Says:

    Glad you liked it! I’ve written a fair amount about Arabic (put the word into the search box in the right margin to get a list of posts); here‘s a post about Arabic loanwords in Spanish.

  2. Thomas Milo Says:

    Howdy. Also glad you liked the article about Tasmeem. BTW, Tasmeem is not a font but typesetting technology that can handle all kind of Arabic, not just the simplified variety. To call that calligraphy is just a bad translation of the Arabic term KHATT, which simply means “line” (e.g., of text, but also airline is KHATT JAWI). The best English term for the kind of script Tasmeem can handle would be calligraphy but “text manufacture”: a 17th century Italian scholar reports that there were 80.000 copyists in Istanbul. This number may be widely off the mark, but it suggests it text manufacture was an industry rather than an art. If you are interested in more aspects of Tasmeem, consider taking a peep here:

    BTW, I love Language Hat. Here are some contributions by me:


  3. Nijma Says:

    What a beautiful script.

    Thanks to both of you for the intriguing links. I lost myself following them as far as the Arabic graffiti blog–wonder how those Lebanese street artists are managing with militias in the streets these days.

  4. hannah Says:

    The word potato derives from native American languages (a compound of the Taino batata (sweet potato) and the Quechua papa (potato))

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