March 16, 2004

A New Arabic Alphabet?

A while back Mark Liberman commented on the problems of rendering alphabets in which the graphical order is not the same as the phonological order or in which letters take different forms in different contexts. Arabic is one such alphabet.

For instance, here are the forms that the letter ghayn takes in isolation, in initial position, in medial position, and in final position: ﻍ   ﻏ   ﻐ   ﻎ
To see how complicated this is, look at the words to the right.. In the first line I've written /is/ so that you can compare it with the word /ism/ "name" in the second line. You might think that adding an /m/ to the end of the word (which is the left edge since Arabic is written right to left), would result in /is/ being a graphical suffix of /ism/. It doesn't, because the final form of /s/ is ﺲ but the medial form is ﺴ In the third line I've written /al-ism/ "the name", and in the fourth, /al/ "the" by itself. Here again, /al-ism/ is not a simple concatenation of /al/ and /ism/.

The New York Times contains a report on a proposed modification of the Arabic alphabet that avoids these difficulties, though for a different reason. Saad D. Abulhab, an Iraqi-American, encountered resistance when he tried to teach his six year old daughter to read and write in Arabic. She did not like the fact that Arabic is written right to left since she had already begun to learn to read English left to right. In response, Mr. Abulhab developed a modified version of the Arabic alphabet in which each letter has a single form and in which letters can be written separately rather than linked together in the usual cursive style. Among other things, this allows it to be written equally well right to left or left to right. His modified alphabet is intended primarily as a transitional system, to make it easier for children like his daughter to learn to read and write in Arabic, but he reports that adults accustomed to the traditional system are able to read his modified alphabet with little difficulty.

This new system should be much easier to render, and is probably easier to learn to read and write, so one can imagine it eventually replacing traditional Arabic writing. But I doubt that it will. Traditional Arabic writing is so much a part of the cultures in which it is used and so tied up with Islamic tradition, that even if the new system has great advantages there will be enormous resistance to change.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 16, 2004 02:03 AM