Beyond “Graphic design is my Passion”: Decolonizing Typography and Reclaiming Identity (II of II)

In my previous blog post, I described some of my online encounters with amateur typography- and graphic design-nerd communities (of which I am an active member of some).

With professional software, such as Adobe Creative Suite (including the graphic/font-design apps, Illustrator and TypeKit), readily available to non-professionals on the Internet for at least the past five years, it has become much easier to dip one’s proverbial toes in the type-design world.  What is more, online font-sharing sites (dafont.com, TypeKit, Google Fonts) have made both uploading and downloading homemade fonts an easy, communitarian process.  This has further opened up the field to amateurs who may not have a financial interest in type design or financial capacity to devote resources to it, but are still interested in participating.

In both the professional and amateur communities of type-designers and -lovers, there are people from all over the world with diverse linguistic backgrounds and socioeconomic experiences.  As such, there are already some subcommunities of type designers that have begun putting their skills to use in the advancement of language justice.

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Even in America, a renewed interest in typography as craft has sparked an entire industry within the creative community.  Photo by Markus Spiske freeforcommercialuse.net on Pexels.com

One establishment that has grouped together some of these forward-thinking designers is the Atelier National de Recherche Typographique (ANRT) in Nancy, France.  Affiliated with the ENSAD art school and the French Ministry of Culture, its projects have included font design and print systematization for several underrepresented scripts, including the Moroccan Tifinagh script, used for the Berber language Amazigh and other languages of North Africa.

Morocco’s linguistic landscape includes not only Amazigh and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the two official state languages, but also Moroccan Arabic—the regional variety of Arabic, which differs significantly from MSA—and French, a language engrained in contemporary Moroccan society even since Morocco’s independence from French colonization in 1956.  These languages are all present in both the private and public spheres.

The project of one doctoral researcher at the ANRT, Redouan Chetuan, caught my attention.  Chetuan honed in on the fact that Amazigh, MSA, and French—the three languages used most often alongside one another in official Screenshot 2018-05-29 11.06.08documents and signage—all use different alphabets: Amazigh uses the Tifinagh script; MSA, the Arabic script; and French, the Latin script.  Chetuan’s project was to design fonts for Tifinagh and Arabic in particular, as these two scripts—when compared with the ubiquitous Latin script— are sorely underrepresented in digital print and typemaking. He aimed at creating fonts that would aesthetically synthesize trilingual signage and documents, providing an aesthetic coherence between all three scripts—in other words, that would make the Latin characters look good alongside Arabic and Tifinagh characters. This would, in his hypothesis, increase inter-language legibility, and also to put the three languages on the same aesthetic tier.

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Three “equivalent”-sounding characters: one in Latin script, the next in Tifinagh, and the last in Arabic.

Is this idea of an “aesthetic tier” trivial?  This hearkens back to our original question, about whether concentrating on the graphic design aspect of digital script development is worthwhile.  I think that it is certainly worth debating, especially if human and monetary resources could potentially go into the development of new fonts and localization processes for underrepresented scripts.  The prestige of a script, and the language it embodies, depends largely on public perception—and isn’t public perception, in large part, determined by our environment ? And isn’t this environment filled with advertisements, and public signage, and print or online visual media—all elements of the intersection between text and design with which we engage, both passively and actively, constantly each day ?

In considering this question, we might come to understand why it is important that a Moroccan of any mother tongue—be it French, Moroccan Arabic, or a Berber language—be able to recognize their language, and thus, in a way, themselves, in the public sphere.

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The Tifinagh script stirs up plenty of controversy on its own as it seeks to depart from Arabic characters.  Photo from IRCAM, with more information available here.

Stéphanie Pouessel, a scholar on the Tifinagh alphabet and Berber languages, has written extensively about this debate.  According to her research, the Berber communities in Morocco and other North African countries have oscillated between opting for the transcription of their languages in Latin and Arabic characters.  The relatively recent introduction (beginning with an expat Berber movement, based in Paris, in the 1960s) of the Tifinagh alphabet, restructured and optimized for “modern” Amazigh use, into this range of options has provoked introspection among Berber

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A sample page of text in Tifinagh script.  How might this stylization of Tifinagh font influence the way its content is presented or received?  Image is a sample of type design created by Juan Luis Blanco, available here.

academics and other community members about what a script means to their language and, to go further, their identities.

The Tifinagh script was therefore “resurrected” (Pouessel actually uses the French word for “exhumed,” (which I found particularly poetic) in a move that can plausibly be chalked up to identity politics.  This script, which has been found on stele and stone inscriptions that predate Islam (some going as far back as 2500 B.C.E.), is considered “pre-Islamic.” The members of the Berber language communities who have embraced the Tifinagh script see it as a claim to a special heritage beyond the Arabo-Islamic one under which they are commonly regrouped.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Amazigh cultural associations in Morocco had begun distributing periodic “bulletins” around primarily Amazigh-speaking villages in the countryside, containing national and international news updates as well as information about the goings-on of the Amazigh movement within Morocco.  Pouessel quotes Algerian Kabyle nationalist Mohand Aarav Bessaoud, who said that Amazigh Moroccans “saw, in these bulletins, concrete proof that their language wasn’t dead. The Berbers got a great sense of pride in discovering that their ancestors had their own writing system, and this re-endowed them with a sense of pride in being Berber” (Bessaoud, cited by Pouessel, 2000).

Bringing the Tifinagh script onto the same aesthetic tier as the Latin and Arabic scripts, then, carries an enormous historical weight for the Amazigh community—and may do so even for speakers of other Berber languages that have begun to adopt this script, despite being separate from Amazigh (such as Chleuh or Tarafit).  In order for the Tifinagh script to attain the same sort of prestige in the public eye, for both its speakers and its observers—for example, the arabophone or francophone Moroccans who do not speak Amazigh or read Tifinagh—it must be placed on the same plane as the two scripts with which it shares public space in Morocco.  If any Moroccan, or even visitor to the country—arabophone, francophone, berberophone, or whatever else—were to notice a stark difference in the visual presentation of trilingual (and tri-scriptual) materials, between the Tifinagh and other two scripts, wouldn’t this further alienate the Tifinagh alphabet from its status as a linguistic entity alongside French and Arabic ?

This “aesthetic tier” merits consideration from designers and engaged citizens alike, especially when thinking about the implications that script styling and aesthetics have on everyday life—from signage implanted by the government, to advertisements on TV and billboards.  Chetuan’s project to aesthetically streamline the Tifinagh alphabet alongside the two alphabets with which it shares public space in Morocco is subtle genius: in doing so, he bears in mind the historical disadvantage that the Tifinagh script faces with relation to the Latin and Arabic scripts, and can apply his creativity to setting the playing field a bit more even.  If other designers were to follow this lead, we might make great strides in preserving public spaces for underrepresented languages.

By Madeleine Leddy, ICLS Undergraduate and graphic design aficionado.

Sources:

 

  • Chetuan, Redouan. “Un pays, trois systèmes d’écritures.” ANRT Nancy, 2013, https://anrt-nancy.fr/fr/projets/awal-un-pays-trois-systemes-decritures/.
  • Pouessel, Stéphanie. “Écrire la langue berbère au royaume de Mohamed VI: les enjeux politiques et identitaires du tifinagh au Maroc.” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée, Université de Provence, 2008, no. 124, 219-239.

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