“Za is for Saffron” by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi
Za is for Saffron
Za and Ra come from different ancestors, though you wouldn’t guess it from their appearance. Today only the dot distinguishes them. This was not always the case.
Among the letters which don’t connect on the left (Za is our fourth), there are other family connections you wouldn’t ordinarily see. It is a tangled genealogy. Today Ra and Za look like twins, except for the dot over Za, but in Nabataean, the R sound had a different twin. R was represented by a letter pretty much identical to the one which represented the sound of D. (Both looked like an inverted capital Roman L.) The Z sound was at that time a simple vertical stroke. None of the three had a dot. Gradually the shapes of Dal and Ra grew apart, who knows why, Dal with the sharper angle, while Ra grew smoother and began to sit lower on the line. Meanwhile Ra and Za converged. Sometime around the fourth century, Za and Ra became the look-alikes, too close for practical use. There was a separation, and Za got the dot. Then both shapes, Za and Ra, developed, thanks to the reed pen, the identical curved bodies we see today.
There is probably some scientific principle to explain the evolution of letters from one form to another, why one rotates 90 degrees, lengthens, thickens or bends. Perhaps the changes are arbitrary, or perhaps there is a process of natural selection, in which the most useful ones, the most legible, the easiest to distinguish, or the most beautiful, survive. The reed pen exerted its shaping power. As Islam spread, and there were frequent occasions to treat letters with respect, in calligraphy, inscriptions, seals and written prayers, the most beautiful (or malleable) were the survivors.
Zayn in Arabic means beauty. For years I thought that in Arabic Zayn was the name of the letter. (It isn’t.) Way back, as far back as the evidence goes, the Phoenician ancestor of Za, something like a capital H on its side, had a name (Zayin, in Phoenician “weapon,” evidently a sword). The current shape has lost the name, but it looks more like a sword.
continued at: http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/za/
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