Independent Pages / Wave #4 Essay April 2021

Semantic Condensation and Other Techno-Acoustic Devices

Moad Musbahi

In its first few centuries, Arabic script had no dots, marks or graphic inflexions to differentiate the sequence of muscular movements that the mouth was to perform. This notational absence resulted in certain letters being indistinguishable from one another. One symbol, for example, had as many as five alphabetical possibilities. The cursive form was further reduced from its phonetic double because the script did not include the diacritical marks or vowel points, and thus denied the autonomy of the written word's semantic meaning. Although there was an almost total indeterminacy of annunciation, this logic was a product of phonatory phonetic privilege, a linguistic practice in which time and tune took over the semiotic dimension of communication rendering its captivity to the momentary disturbance of breath as absolute and necessary. It became an attachment whose logic burrowed deep into the word’s parasitical tie to its bodily host. One could not know things without hearing them, without being in their sound presence. This contraction of abstract signs was a tactical and sophisticated mechanism to bind knowledge with its corporeal embodiments, a situation that generated the condition of a live audition, the causality creating the fact that orations are given in real-time. The process is multi-faceted and variably executed. The moment of delivery is extemporaneous, so at most, a text is used as a prompt, a mnemonic aid rather than an object for itself. [1]

[1] This type of textual aid has a similarity to what the ancient Greeks defined as a ‘hypomnema’, c.f. Michel Foucault, ‘The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) pp.500-501

A deictic expression or gesture is dependent on its context and audience. With a fixed semantic meaning, its denoted meaning varies depending on its constellation of associations. Essentially, the performative dimension of the khutba’s delivery produced a possibility for augmentation through material situatedness and montaging within a sequence of events. That potency extends beyond its translation into a static and congealed form. From this, a set of techniques and technologies developed that were applied and adhered to differentially across this vast and loud history.


The need to transport and transmit knowledge prompted the mass migration of a class of itinerant orators, and a circulation of anthologies of lecture notes as written prompts. In these mediums, sophisticated processes of data compression were utilised.

[2] Ibn Abd-Rabbihi, al-Iqd al-Farid, 1:59

“There is a conceptual brevity in which the term, ‘semantic condensation’ [talkhis al-ma’ni] is stated here, an indication of a far more elaborate and complex formulation for the re-auditioning and future enactment of the khutba. I have translated the word talkhis, as ‘condensation’ rather than today’s commonly accepted ‘summarisation’ to discuss the dual-meaning that arises in the linguistic break. The densification of meaning through laconic transferral also references condensation as a state-change from gaseous breath into liquid upon the cold surface of its reception, its materialisation becoming something portable and visible.


Skilled poets and orators employ rhythmic tactics by accentuating communication with a set of linguistic devices. Abu Dawud continues a list of other attributes in the earlier passage, including the stillness of composure and absence of bodily gesture. [3] These refer to the understanding that it’s the words – not the speaker – that perform, as the speaker is meant to remain still and inanimate. Some syntactic forms travel further than others, reinforcing their meanings with a shared set of structural attributes through the looping and resampling of sound vibrations as they hit the eardrum. This functions by employing a technique known as vocalic assonance that rhythmically repeats vowels across a chain of words. It also carries identical syntax from sentence to sentence, utilising what is referred to as syntactical parallelism, an appellation that choreographs a dance between the sign, its signified meaning and the vibratory medium of the space connecting them.

[3] This word-performance has an interesting contemporary parallel in the works of Kamau Braithwaite, and Nathaniel Mackey, referenced among other places such as in the latter’s essay ‘Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific’.

[4] It is also similar to paronomasia, though without its added meaning of producing a humorous effect, but it goes further than polysemy in that there is a production of an effect in the sum of the divergent meanings beyond the accumulation of each respective one autonomously.

[5] This was the subject of another work -


A semiotic crypt arises to find its most efficient form in the practice of polysemy. [4] Here, a single word carries a multiplicity of meanings. One word can refer to an act, a place, an individual, divine providence or something different in another context - all at once. The amalgamation of this device on a syntactic level of the sentence results in intertextuality, in which phrases that emanated elsewhere point to their origins without explicitly declaring them. [5] As intertextuality is built on referencing prior known speech within a new context, it demands certain awareness from the audience. This prerequisite knowledge synchronises and binds the community with the frequency of its orations through its verbal interplay. It creates a community continually remade in its set of shared references, making the khutba into a vehicle of mass media, a post-production act of sonic sampling to a learned audience.
Without being repeatedly subjected to this performance, and thus versed in its art, to the stranger, these orations take the form of apocrypha, hidden codes that seem indecipherable at worst and mundane at best. They’re sounds that produce distinct effects on each ear. The khutba demands an education of the sound-making medium within us to allow for a binaural and dimensional listening into historical silence.

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