A page from Rana Abou Rjeily's Cultural Connectives, a book comparing the Arabic and English languages.
The Arabic language is a formidable goal for any language learner, particularly because of its script. The cursive script used throughout the Arab world for all types of written communication bears little resemblance to the Latin script used throughout the west.
The typographer and graphic designer Rana Abou Rjeily, like many designers, is attempting to unite two disparate cultures using the power of design. Her recent book Cultural Connectives serves as an introduction to the Arabic language for English speakers. In a recent interview with the New Yorker's Book Bench blog, she talks about her choices in designing the typeface she uses in the book, which contains character sets in both Arabic and Latin styles. The Arabic letters in the typeface, which she calls Mirsaal, can be used in a traditional cursive style or with each Arabic letter detached, in the style of western printing.
The 20th century saw many non-western societies examining their own languages and writing systems, in an effort to simplify global communication, modernize nations, and reform education. The Chinese Simplified character set was developed in the 1950s and '60s in an effort to increase literacy among mainland Chinese. Originally theorized in the first decades of the century by anti-imperialist intellectuals seeking to modernize the Chinese state, the simplified character set was taken up by Mao's government mid-century as well.
In the Arabic-speaking world, the idea of using a non-cursive or detached script is a bit more controversial. Twentieth-century reformers have proposed simplified or detached typefaces, including social proposals involving multi-stage transitions from traditional type to fully detached letters. Rjeily writes that some are opposed to the teaching of an Arabic script with detached letters, because Arabic's cultural heritage lies in the cursive style. Mirsaal strives to bridge the gap using line weights and character widths that are easily legible when detached while also supporting a cursive style.