ISSN: 2534-5192


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ISBN: 978-2-9570549-0-9
e-ISBN: 978-2-9570549-1-6

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On the Writing System of Arabic:
The Semiographic Principle as Reflected in Nasḫī Letter Shapes

Joseph Dichy
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Abstract. Arabic writing as we know it was codified between the 1st/7th and 3rd/9th centuries. It is much more ancient and had appeared with another type of letter shapes akin to South Arabian writings around 800 years BC (Robin, 1991). The script borrowed the basis of its letter shapes from Nabataean writing (Baʿalbakī, 1981; Healey & Smith, 2009). Arabic script became more rational and regular due to what S. Auroux called, with reference to the French language, grammatization processes, which can be illustrated with Arabic, due to the very rich medieval sciences literature that was contemporary or immediately subsequent to its codification.

This paper is concerned with one aspect of the grammatisation process, that of letter shapes in the Nasḫī style of calligraphy, which was codified by Ibn Muqla (4th/10th cent.) and his followers. The paper presents the basic drawings included in the building of letters as designed by Ibn Muqla. It also highlights the fact that the relatively small number of shapes in Arabic is due to the cursive line inherited from Nabatean script. The graphic word-form with its complex set of morphological structures (extensively described in Dichy 1990a; 1997a), was another inheritance of earlier Semitic writing tradition (which isolated word-forms since Phoenician writing). Word-form structure resulted in a special style of final letters shapes, which exist in Hebrew with five letters, but were systematized in Arabic in a way that produced a basic opposition between initial and medial letter-shapes on the one hand, and final (end-of-word) shapes on the other. The result, including a few letters that escaped the opposition, is also presented.

The overall view highlights, in the author's theory of writing (Dichy, 2019), the way in which the Semiographic Principle parallels the Phonographic Principle in the writing of the Arabic language. This approach considers writing systems as analytic (Dichy, 2017). This means that the writing system can be considered as a collective cognitive analysis of the oral language. Analytic results are then projected on a writing support according to the semiographic structures of the script. The orthography of the language features the complex relations between the two principles. One point underlying the present paper is that the collective cognitive developments associated with a writing system are related to grammatisation processes, which occur in a given historic period (there can therefore be successive grammatisation periods in a given language and culture).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36824/2018-graf-dich


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Joseph Dichy (2019), On the Writing System of Arabic: The Semiographic Principle as Reflected in Nasḫī Letter Shapes, in Proceedings of Graphemics in the 21st Century, Brest 2018 (Yannis Haralambous, Ed.), Brest: Fluxus Editions, 257–268

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