The Arabic and Eurabic scripts

Thomas Milo, the typographer, sent to the Arabic-L mailing list a link to his talk at the recent ATypI Conference in Reykjavík.

He discusses the difference between the Arabic script, and one created in Europe to imitate it (but failed to do so) which he calls Eurabic. He mentions that Eurabic does not include the script grammar that is required by the normal Arabic script in order to differentiate similar but distinct combinations of characters.

He mentions various features that exist in Eurabic, but do not exist in Arabic, like the reversed L shapes, the reversed Z shapes, and the inverted V shapes. Also says that these features are a part of the Arabic Times New Roman, while other fonts attempt to include the script grammar of Arabic.

Among the unusual things included in this talk (I never knew those existed but I want a copy of each of those texts):

  1. At 19:50, a copy of the Opuscles D’Abou’L-Walid using both (Eu/A)rabic and Hebrew scripts, surely an example of written Arabic-Hebrew codeswitching.
  2. At 20:50, a copy of a Karaite Torah using the Arabic script instead of the Hebrew script.
  3. At 22:09, a copy of a parallel Arabic-Latin Qur’an, using not the Arabic script, but the Hebrew script.

I highly recommend you spend the next half-hour watching this very interesting and highly informative talk:


  1. Thomas Milo says:

    اية خدمة

    I’ll try and dig up a URL for the Opuscles D’Abou’L-Walid as well.

  2. Thomas Milo says:

    Ibn Janâh, Abu al-Walîd Merwân (ca.990-ca.1050), traducción francesa por J. Derenbourg
    y H. Derenbourg. Opuscules et traités d’Abou ‘L-Walid Merwan Ibn Djanah de Cordoue.
    Alicante : Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes (August 4th, 2011)
    Original Edition: Paris:
    l’Imprimerie Nationale, 1880

    (Courtesy of Lara Captan, who found this in the course of her own research)

  3. Charles Haberl says:

    Question: If I understand Thomas correctly, he uses the term “script grammar” to distinguish between the purely extraneous aesthetic features of the script (i.e. its “calligraphic” forms) and the smallest indivisible forms of the script that convey meaning (e.g. the “backwards ls” and the “teats”). Might it not be more proper to refer to a “morphology” of the script, in the sense of a study of forms and their structural features?

    • Thomas Milo says:

      Hi Charles,

      I tried several terms to get the concept across, including, of course, morphology and morphographics (a term proposed by John Hudson, but also the more precise graphology-graphetics (analogous to phonology-phonetics and, coincidentally the term used by the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language – David Crystal) but I kept returning to plain and simple script grammar. Anyway, for the layman language grammar is limited to one aspect of grammar, usually morphology.

      BTW, the “grammar” metaphor justifies bringing in De Saussure’s concept of Competence and Performance. Calligraphy is script grammatically not distinct from regular text manufacture (another term coined by John Hudson), i.e., it is based on the same competence and uses the same shape paradigms, but it differs in _performance_. On top of that, calligraphy can more easily break away from script grammar, e.g., when it goes in zoomorphic mode.

  4. Szabolcs says:

    I do not agree. The Europeans (i.e. European orientalists) _could_ write arabic. They just used a different *style*, one which diverged form the let’s say 16th-18th c. arabic considerably having their “common ancestor” somewhere around late kufic (10th-12th c.).

    It’s as if you said (from a French or Italian viewpoint) that the Germans could not write Latin. Of course, but they used a different style (blackletter), one which diverged at the time of the first prints considerably from the “Roman” types, having had their latest common ancestor in the carolingian minuscles.

    In fact, not only does the European tradition of Arabic have its roots in kufic, but also bears its birthmarks on it (your “inverted L-s”). And of course it also bears marks of its other parent, the Europeans, with all their sense and strife for the practical. The fact, that the European tradition of Arabic could be printed with movable letters in its time, is a great achievement. (You mustn’t fall into the mistake and compare their means, both economic and technical, with today’s).

    Saying the European style of Arabic is ugly, is as if you’d say, blackletter is ugly. And while I’m sure that during the 15th-20th century you could have found uncountable Italians or French to concur with this claim, it still remains nothing more than a subjective opinion. The two (Blackletter vs. Roman; Naskh vs. “Eurabic”) are just not directly comparable. They have different aesthetics — each their own. Naskh is more calligraphic, Eurabic is more iconic. That’s it, really, in my view.

    • Thomas Milo says:

      Dear Mr Szabolcs,

      What you write makes perfect sense and to a certain exten concurs with what I am explaining. Europeans created a new vehicle for Arabic, a new branch on the tree of Semitic scripts, which I curtly call Eurabic. I am however growing more and more suspicious of the so-called Kufic connection. If it was there at all, it must have been as weak as the connection with later Islamic script – Europeans never bothered to master Islamic script grammar. It is obvious that they didn’t know enough Kufic for the trick – after all, no consistent Kufic typography has ever been made in the West (just think of Yale). A much more likely source for Eurabic should be sought in the tradition of Syriac typesetting. There one also finds the inverted L shapes – admittedly for different letters but uncannily similar to early Eutabic, there one finds a valid fourfold allograph paradigm (initial, middle, final, unconnected), the very paradigm that is a misfit for all pre-typographic forms of Islamic script, but not for Syriac. The same Western typographers that created the first Arabic typefaces, created far superior Syriac typefaces – because of better communication with the target audience: Levantine Christian Arabs.

      But where you write “the Europeans, with all their sense and strife for the practical”, I beg to disagree. This is exactly the ridiculous and stupid arrogance that I tried to expose in my lecture. The logic behind your wording implies that non-Europeans have no or less “sense and strife for the practical”.

      In my view it is exactly this European vanity that led to the emergence of Eurabic.

      There’s another discussion, in Spanish, around this topic here:

      It gives a longer quotation from Karsten Niebuhr than I did:

      So Niebuhr reports that he considers everyday Arabic illegible! Then he proceeds to describe script grammatically shaped Arabic (“a species of elegance”) with undisguised disdain – as if it were not the result of rational and pragmatic thinking.

      I suspect that this exposes an attitude that exists to this day.

  5. Thomas Milo says:

    Regarding the so-called “Kufic” script, it cannot have been the model for European Arabic. Here are some observations regarding its structure – none of them can be found it European Arabic handwriting or typography.

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