Paolo Monella, Scritture dimenticate, scritture colonizzate: sistemi grafici e codifiche digitali

The article discusses two examples of how current digital encoding technologies misrepresent non-Western scripts, namely the graphical systems of India (Devánāgarī) and the Middle East (Arabic). Digital encodings such as Unicode inherit three rigid principles from print: (A) 1 ↔ 1, one grapheme corresponds to one letter; (B) 1 = 1, all graphemes (e.g. vowels, consonants) have the same status; (C) 1, 2, 3…, writing is a sequence of elements all on the same "level". These principles, however, did not apply to handwritten medieval European graphic systems and do not apply today to non-western ones, including their print version. In Devánāgarī, some vowels are written before the consonant that they represent; in European medieval writing systems and in Arabic, diacritics orbit around (above, under or after) base graphemes. In order to provide a digital encoding of those writing systems accordingly to the cultures they belong to, such diacritics should be provided with a special status, distinguishing them from (and linking them to) their base graphemes. In the case of Arabic, ḥarakāt are added above or below a consonant to specify the short vowel with which it should be pronounced. Since in Arabic a word is identified by its consonants and long vowels only, ḥarakāt are optional diacritics. The pronunciation of vowels varies largely in time and space among the Arabic-speaking world. A word is the same word from Morocco to Iraq only as long as one only writes its consonants and long vowels, i.e. only within the structure of the Arabic script. Current text encoding technologies fail to represent the optional and relative nature of ḥarakāt. Thus, they make short vowels semiotically pertinent at the same level of consonants. This has potential practical, cultural and social implications in the self-representation of the cultural unity of the Arabic-Islamic world.

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