The pivotal role of Arabic script grammar in the transition from manual to mechanized text reproduction

The transition from manual to mechanised text reproduction took place in an Ottoman milieu, for two reasons. Firstly, practically all the Arab world was part of the Ottoman Empire. Secondly, typography, being what would today be called information technology, was of strategic importance and therefore encouraged and monopolised by the Ottoman state. 

The essence of Arabic script is to be found not in calligraphy, but in script grammar. Calligraphy refers to the quality of script, script grammar to the structure of script. For Arabic, the key to the successful transition from text manufacture by scribes to mechanized text reproduction by means of moveable type was the marriage of integral script expertise with typographic know-how. This involved the collaboration between different personalities and social groups.

It can be observed that the primary models for Arabic typography were the nastaliq, naskh and ruq`ah styles. For the target audience these styles are clearly distinct and can explicitly be defined and identified.

From a Middle Eastern point of view all contemporary Western initiatives in this field were irrelevant, because both typographers and the consulting scholars lacked the necessary expertise in script identification and awareness of the concept of script grammar.

The focus of this talk is the principle of script grammar, illustrated with the naskh style. Its existence will be proven by a comparison between Mühendisoğlu’s Yeni Hurufat and handwritten examples. It will be shown that further typographical development led to a gradual, but very limited deviation from script grammar, which will be delineated by means of minimal pairs, i.e., images of identical words attested in various datable stages of the Ottoman typographic development which laid the foundation for modern Arabic typography.