We often eat at a Persian restaurant close by in Richmond. The food is good, the service quick and aspects of the decor very special. On the walls are a series of framed examples of Persian calligraphy. What is extraordinary is how each letter, with its gracefully sweeping lines and elegantly balanced proportions, can be seen as a work of art. Just as I find Italian the most wonderful language to hear, so these pictures suggest that the Persian alphabet is one of the most beautiful to see. Certainly, the letters are more appealing than, say, those in our own Roman alphabet. Surely, with such beauty, the very act of writing in Persian will give writers a special pleasure, no matter the meaning of the words spelled out. Well, that is what I have often thought while savouring, for example, a joojeh kabab or a mazeh sini.
The question as to how the shape of letters might influence language resurfaced again last week; this time at a restaurant in France. We were out to dinner celebrating the retirement of Jean-Yves, a close friend and musician. There were six of us round the table. Opposite me was Jeanine, a retired primary school teacher with more than twenty years experience teaching nine to eleven-year-olds.
With Jeanine being reserved and me, in my French persona, shy, our end of the table was very quiet. To break one over-long silence I asked Jeanine a question concerning la dictée, an aspect of French education I hate, as indeed do many in France. How the authorities have forced generations of children to suffer dictation sessions in the guise of education has always struck me as odd. To make matters worse, the marking scheme allows students to obtain minus scores – something of which I have proxy experience. Much of my wife’s schooling was in France and she has never forgotten the humiliation she felt when one day she got a mark of minus 40 out of 20!
Over recent years emphasis on la dictée has been diminishing. Then, last month, things changed; hence my question. “Jeanine, do you agree with the recent proposal by your minister of education that daily dictation should be re-introduced into the school curriculum?” I expected a tirade against this volte face, but no, quite the reverse. Jeanine assured me that it was important that children write everyday and la dictée offers just such an opportunity. Indeed, she went on, it is invaluable, adding that through handwriting, especially through learning how to form letters correctly, children learn the value and meaning of letters, of words and ultimately of the language itself, and this helps them develop their linguistic skills. Finally she argued that it also brings an appreciation of language generally; in this case, of French.
Her notion was surprising, but the ideas fascinating. Could it be that the activity of the hand determines some of the highest aspects of the workings of the brain? If it we’re so, it would give even greater significance to my musings on the Arabic alphabet.
In attempt to get some insight, I asked Rohan if she had any favourite letters. Without hesitation she listed the lower case ‘f‘, the ´g‘, and finally the ‘y‘ ; in that order, each time waving her hand as though writing the letter in the air. Then it was my turn and I could think of no favourite letters but I listed three symbols which were the ‘@’, the ‘€’ and the ‘£’, figures I write and rewrite when doodling. Interestingly, as a child, Rohan had great difficulty correctly writing her favoured ‘f‘ and still does its loops in the wrong order, while of my symbols, only the ‘£’-sign was around when I was at school.
Despite Jeanine’s argument that the formation of letters in handwriting might influence how our minds function, for neither Rohan nor I does the relationship ring true. Both of us have a love for words and writing but hours of letter-forming exercises in France left Rohan cold and, of course, as a child brought up in the UK, letter forming was a relatively minor issue. Interestingly, if it were true, in an age where letters and words are increasingly written using laptops or other devices, there would be a risk that the appreciation of language would collapse. However, in my experience, using word processors has done nothing but enhance my love of letters. No matter the reality, none of this has changed my mind about the Persian alphabet which remains as beautiful as ever.