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| 14 July, 2018

Efforts to unify Arabic script for computer codes, people

Linguists are working to create a single Arabic script that can be used online

Image used for illustrative purpose.
Hands typing on laptop computer.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Hands typing on laptop computer.

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Linguists are working to create a single Arabic script that can be used online, uniting the various dialects of the language so that it can be understood in computer coding.

With technology now found everywhere in the Arab world, and with Arabs across the globe now increasingly familiar with hi-tech, experts are working closely with Arabic states to create a typography that can be easily used and understood by people all over the world so that it does not cause confusion among non-Arabic speakers. Oman joined the Unicode Consortium, a small but growing not-for-profit organisation that was begun in Silicon Valley in 1998 and includes major players such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM, with the objective of unifying computer codes for all languages and scripts.

Regarding this project, Thomas Milo, a Dutch linguist who, through his company, DecoType, is working towards developing a standardised Unicode for Arabic, said, “People always talk about Arabic in terms of calligraphy and elegance, but there is a lot of stability to the language, as well,” he explained. “The same shape of the letter in old Arabic can represent many things. For example, one letter can represent both the letter ‘kaaf’ and the letter ‘meem’. The difference is only the vertical positioning. This is distinctive across the many forms of Arabic, and I don’t think this distinction has ever been seen before.

Arabic font

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Milo and his company are the brains behind the Arabic font that is now widely used by Microsoft and other companies that require the script.

“The writing represents something that has many layers under it,” he noted. “In the early 1990s, we pushed the limits of the very limited Microsoft traditional Arabic font, but we were shooting ourselves in the foot because we believed that was good. But we managed to get a lot of the Arabic shapes in a very simple format, but it took 31 different fonts for one typeface.

“A typeface is what you get on paper, but a font is just a method to make shapes,” added Milo. “We published this, and a subset of it was licensed by Microsoft and then Google, and indirectly, Adobe, because of Adobe Page Maker. There are, for example, 12 different ways of writing one letter group as part of a word, and two ways of writing a second part of a word in Arabic, which means there are 24 different ways of writing that word.”

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