The One-Script Solution: Hebrew and Arabic Joined in Peace

“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.” (Genesis, 11:1)

A new Hebrew-Arabic writing system called “Aravrit” has been invented which can easily be read by native speakers of both Hebrew and Arabic. Liron Lavi Turkenich, an Israeli typeface designer and researcher, started working on Aravrit in 2012 as her final project for her Visual Communications degree from Ramat Gan’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. Though it took several years, the project has finally been completed.

In 1922, English, Hebrew and Arabic were equally recognized as the official languages of “Palestine”. However, upon the establishment of the State of Israel, the ordinance mandating the use of English on official documents was repealed.

In November 2000, an Israeli Supreme Court ruling stated that the use of Arabic should be much more extensive. Since then, all road signs, food, medicine labels, and published or posted government messages are both in Hebrew and Arabic.

Eight years later, some Israeli politicians made an effort to override that ruling by suggesting that Arabic be demoted from one of Israel’s national languages to a “special status” – a language acknowledged as native to 20 percent of the population but without any more official significance than Russian, Amharic, French or English. Amidst the continuing controversy, Lavi Turkenich began experimenting with and designing her Aravrit system.

While Hebrew can be read using the bottom halves of letters, Arabic can be read using the top halves. (LironLavi.com)

The name of the system is a combination of the Hebrew words for each language: “Ivrit” (Hebrew) and “Aravit” (Arabic).

Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, which offers courses on Bible and and Biblical languages in collaboration with Hebrew University, told Breaking Israel News that she finds Lavi Turkenich’s work fascinating. “While Arabs and Jews are still not at a place of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, Lavi Turkenich’s system demonstrates that at least the two languages can harmoniously share the same space.”

Extensive research on Hebrew and Arabic were required before Lavi Turkenich could design her typeface. Though both languages are Semitic, written from left to right, and originally written with a calligraphy quill, traditional Hebrew letters are distinct and based on square and rectangular angles while Arabic words are made up of rounded cursive letters connected together.

Lavi Turkenich studied the research of Dr. Louis Émile Javal, a 19th century French ophthalmologist who discovered that the reader of Latin text only needs to focus on the top half of the letters to understand the writing. After experimentation, Lavi Turkenich found that Hebrew readers need only see the bottom half of the letters for understanding. She was astonished to find that just the opposite was true for Arabic: Reading Arabic script is possible even when only the top halves of letters are visible.

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Taking these findings, Lavi Turkenich designed symbols which resembled the top halves of Arabic letters and the bottom halves of Hebrew letters. By doing so, she created a unique set of letters that can be read simultaneously by speakers of both languages.

One challenge in this process is that most of the words in Hebrew and Arabic are not composed of the same sounds. In order to allow readability, it was necessary to provide every possible combination for the two languages, Lavi Turkenich created 638 new symbols using 22 Hebrew letters and 29 Arabic letters.

Different combinations for Aravrit. (LironLavi.com)

A significant change she made was not including any Hebrew “end letters”. The Hebrew alphabet writes some letters one way when the letter appears within a word – kaf, mem, nun, peh, tzadik (כ, מ, נ, פ, צ), and differently when it appears at the end of a word (ך, ם, ן, ף, ץ). For example, the letter “mem” appears in the middle of the word Ima אמא (mother) in its regular form, but at the end of the word shalom שלום (peace) in its “end” form.

For the Arabic, she used only the forms of the letters when they stand alone as opposed to variations of the forms depending on their positions in Arabic words. Therefore, compromises had to be made with regard to each language in order for both to function together. In today’s more advanced phases of Aravrit, the Arabic is connected in order to give the Arabic readers a clearer understanding.

Lavi Turkenich, who does not speak Arabic, perfected her typeface based on feedback from Arab speakers she encountered on a daily train commute from her home in Israel’s northern city of Haifa to her centrally-located college in Ramat Gan.

In a presentation she gave at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2015, Lavi Turkenich summed up the benefit of her work. “In my opinion, the letters I designed can serve as a basic bridge between people,” she said. “I want everyone to be able to read the words in the language that feels most comfortable, without ignoring the other language, which is always present.”

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