COLUMN

THE RED LIST

Oriental Penmanship

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Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

Recently, as is my wont, I threw out into the interwebs an inquiry about the current state of Mahajani and other merchant/commercial scripts of South Asia. By far the most valuable response came from Christopher Ray Miller, a linguist from Montreal and an expert in South Asian scripts, who sent me such a barrel of valuable materials via Dropbox that it took 25 minutes to download.

I’m still working my way through the folder, like a vast Christmas stocking, but something I was not expecting at all was a digital facsimile of Oriental Penmanship: Specimens of Persian Handwriting Illustrated with Facsimiles from Originals in the South Kensington Museum by E. H. Palmer, M.A. to Which are Added Illustrations of the Nagari Character by Frederic Pincott, M.R.A.S.

They really don’t make book titles like that any more.

The title page has no date, but the preface begins in what must be the most dramatic sentence ever used in a book on penmanship: “The following exposition of Persian handwriting was compiled by the late Professor E.H.Palmer, a few months before he started on his last disastrous mission to Egypt.”

Wikipedia makes him sound like a cross between the explorer/linguist Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia. Here is word of that last disastrous mission:

“Early in 1882, Palmer was asked by the government to go to the East and assist the Egyptian expedition by his influence over the Arabs of the El-Tih desert. He was instructed, apparently, to prevent the Arab sheikhs from joining the Egyptian rebels and to secure their non-interference with the Suez Canal.

“He went to Gaza without an escort; made his way safely through the desert to Suez, an exploit of singular boldness; and was highly successful in his negotiations with the Bedouin. He was appointed interpreter-in-chief to the force in Egypt, and from Suez he was again sent into the desert with Captain William Gill and Flag-Lieutenant Harold Charrington to procure camels and gain the allegiance of the sheikhs by considerable presents of money.

“On this journey he and his companions were led into an ambush and murdered.”

All this drama turned up, however, after I had already decided to write this column, as a kind of high-calorie dessert. What I found fascinating was that Palmer’s book is a rare illustration of one of the great under-researched questions of linguistics — namely, why does writing look the way it does?

That apparently simple question reveals all kinds of currents and influences, from the fact that the natural motion of the human wrist produces curves, through the influences of religion and trade, to the tools that were suitable and readily available in each region. In an age of digital devices, I suspect most people under 25 have never even considered such factors.

With that introduction, I leave you to the words of the talented but tragic Professor Palmer, who explains with great clarity the equipment required for writing Persian and thus the effect that equipment has on the shape and motion of the Persian script, and in passing shows the origin of the word “penknife.”

It’s a remarkable glimpse into a forgotten technology. Such extraordinary care and precision must have been involved, especially when ink was made by hand, and “clots” must have been common. My own elementary school desks had inkwells, but nobody thought to provide us with sponges or silk rags, and our juvenile hands were permanently stained, our exercise-books blotted like dalmatians.

I’m not sure I can even picture what this Nibber (which sounds like a young Dickensian criminal) was for, or how it was used. I can just imagine a gruff senior clerk standing over a junior, gruffly saying, “Use yer nibber, m’boy! Use yer nibber!”

I’m imagining the Lonely Planet entry on Helleh: “Mainly known for qalam growing and production. Good hummus.”

Hands up all the scholars who can glance at a manuscript — so much more pregnant with information than a typescript or printout — and say, in an offhand manner, “Persian, not Arabic, my dear Watson. You can tell by the angle of the cut.”

“To facilitate the free flow of the ink.”

They knew their technology.

You’ve got it by now, right? That a penknife was a knife used for cutting the qalam nib of a Persian pen, or the tip of a quill pen?

Do kids still even have penknives, and treasure them for their very personal sense of ownership, surely an echo of their great-great-great grandparents, whose penknives must have been part of the kit of literacy, along with the inkstand, the ink sponge, and the nibber?

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