Thomas Miloý
©Copyright 1998 DecoType


The spread of Islam took Arabic outside its area of origin. Arabic became an empire language and above all the language of religion.
In the areas bordering on Arabia proper, Islamic culture with its Arabic language and script gradually replaced older languages of the region.

The Arabic script with its 14 basic shapes, a useful writing system for native speakers of Arabic, made Arabic difficult to read for the new, non-Arab Muslims. This lead to the introduction of diacritics, i.e., of small supplementary symbols in writing. In this way, a more explicit or simplified spelling with 28 letters using dot patterns and surrounding vowels was arrived at.

Arabic did not replace original languages in the more remote conquered areas. However, these languages relinquished their scripts,
the main expression of a cultural affiliation, in favour of the Arabic alphabet.
For sounds not covered by the Arabic alphabet as they are absent in Arabic as a language, new letters where created.
The method is comparable to the creation of diacritially distinct letters in the Latin alphabet to cover sounds absent from the Latin language.

This process resulted in what can be considered the Arabic scripted world.


What sets the Arabic alphabet apart from all others is its development into a highly complex morphological system. The present complexity of script is the result of a conscious effort by a few Arab and Persian scholars to make the script in itself an expression of Islamic culture. From the sixteenth century onwards Ottoman calligraphers developed several of the existing styles into uniquely disciplined art forms that became the basis of Arabic typography.

However much straightforward Arabic script may be on the abstract level, writing Arabic involves more than just lining up letters.
Even a design aiming at reducing the complexity of the script to its absolute minimum cannot allow the letters to be separated from each other: they must be joined to form words.

Far from using analytic forms, i.e., separate letters, the type cutters who worked to emulate the excellence of written Arabic, recognized the continuous nature of script. Therefore, they designed an elaborate system of letter composition segments. There were provisions to cope with the dual baseline of most Islamic scripts. The type designers used a multilevel approach. For a given type there were variants, each of them positioned on a higher baseline. In many cases, complete letter groups had to be precomposed. Calling these compounds ligatures denies the problem and its solution. Ligatures are optional letter combinations in an otherwise analytical writing system. However, in the traditional Arabic scripts there is no choice. They merge all letters in a continuous script.

This typography in the last quarter of the previous century and the first half of this century achieved impressive results.
Consisting of thousands of movable types, the typefaces were highly complex and required specialized technical virtuosity based on thorough knowledge of the underlying calligraphy. With the increased use of typography, one can observe that the discrepancy between handwritten and typeset Naskh increases due to mistakes or ignorance of the design.

At this stage it may be worth while to take a look the multilingual Code Page 10646 put forward by the International Standards Organization (ISO). The basic idea is the same as that of UNICODE: one unique code for each Arabic letter.
Interestingly, it also assigns codes to ligatures. Quite apart from the observation that ligatures don’t belong in a raw text encoding standard, to achieve the typesetting quality associated with these ligatures, there are far to few.
Virtually any letter group would need a dedicated ligature.


Careful analysis can lead to algorithms that synthesize the correct letter compound for a given sequence of Arabic letters.
One project by DecoType to achieve this concentrated on the ruq`ah script, with its characteristic sloping letter compounds.
The latest project produced an algorithm for the Naskh script.

During the research it was recognized, that Arabic script is different from other alphabetic writing system in one more aspect:
many letters can be permutated with calligraphic alternatives. This phenomenon is absent in the Latin alphabet.
This calligraphic permutation opens the perspective of fine-tuning justification in typesetting with a strategy that also was used in manuscripts.

There are now several practical results of the DecoType approach on the market. One of them is the DecoTypeSetter, a feature of Adobe PageMaker Middle East that provides a control panel to handle calligraphic permutation.

The essential DecoType product, however, is the Arabic Calligraphic Engine. ACE constitutes the core of the calligraphic OLE-servers of MS Office97. It also provides the Arabic functionality for the Barco Graphics Editor that DecoType is currently localizing.

The characteristic of ACE is that it has been developed for Arabic and Arabic alone, solving structural deficiencies encountered in all software solutions, including the newly introduced Open Type of Microsoft and Adobe. Typical deficiencies encountered in the industry are the corrupt graphic quality; incomplete vocalization; disregard for historic and Qur’anic orthographic practices in the supported coded character sets; and the impossibility to control diacritics like the letter-distinguishing dots separately.

An interesting detail is the inability of existing Arabic typography to handle full vocalization and full (ligature) complexity simultaneously: one cancels out the other. However, sophisticated script with ligatures is typically associated with full vocalization. ACE is designed to deal with this problem.

As input ACE accepts Unicode (the Arabic Block) and the output consists of a string of plotted penstroke-like glyphs, if necessary in the form of a single object.

The resulting technology, based on calligraphic practice, is not limited to the classic styles. With its support for typically Arabic features, it creates totally new perspectives for modern Arabic type design as well.


Figure 1: DecoType Naskh

Figure 2: DecoType Ruq'ah

(The sample text is part of a text used in the Third International Calligraphy Competition in Istanbul, 1996.)