RE: Unicode politics (was: A basic question on encoding Latin cha racters)

Date: Sun Oct 03 1999 - 09:29:56 EDT

Once again, I will annoy you with my postings about things that I don't know
well enough to talk about...

I have a very high consideration of the work that is being done with
Unicode. Not only and not mainly because I work as a programmer. On the
contrary, I think that Unicode is far more important than just another
computer set, and that future generations will see it as a key event in the
history of writing systems (much more than a key event in the history of

Yet, I don't think that Unicode should become an universal literacy utopy.
It is not the task of Unicode to try to develop or promote writing systems
for language communities that don't yet have one, nor should it try to force
a choice for language communities that are still evaluating their options.

Nor it is the task of governments, religions, or ideologies to come up with
new writing systems.

Everybody should bear in mind that "illiterate" societies are often not so
"illiterate". It is very likey that many (at least some) speakers of
minority unwritten language are nevertheless literate in the *dominant*
language(s) of their countries. This skill is far enough for people to come
up with their own writing system, when they feel they need one.

And this is how it has always been in the history of writing systems. As far
as I know, languages have always been put in writing by natives who were
previously acquainted with the (then) dominant language *and* its writing

The Japanese who, one day, started writing their language with Chinese
characters were monks or intellectuals that (at that age) could speak and
write fluent Chinese and, probably, considered Japanese just as their incult
"dialect". The same holds true for Greece: the people who first adapted a
Semitic alphabet to Greek probably where merchants fluent in the prestigious
Phoenician language, and started writing their "barbaric" language with
Phoenician letters just as a joke, or as a challange. People who decided to
spell Urdu or Persian with Arabic letters probably had a perfect command of
the Arabic language, that they used every day to read the Kuran.

And we know that the same is true also for our Western languages. The reason
why all of them are written with the "Latin" alphabet is that the people who
started writing national European language wrote, till the day before, in
Latin. The first time an educated Italian aboriginal wrote an essay *about*
his language (and how it had to be written), he dit it in *Latin*: the
language that, at that time, was dominating in culture. Only after this
theoretical work (De Vulgari Eloquentia) the aboriginal Dante Alighieri
could start writing poems *in* Italian.

If I was an illiterate member of an Amazonas tribe, I would prefer that my
language is put in writing, if it has to be, by educated members of my
community (well, educated in Portuguese or Spanish, that is) than from a
commetee in San Josť, California.

Of course the natives who start writing their native language could well be
christians, muslims, communists, government officials, etc., and thus the
first texts written in those languages would be translations of the Bible,
the Kuran, the Manifesto or the Constitution... Better that than having
silly sentences like "Where do you want to go today" or "Think different" as
one's languages first recorded texts!

As a literate member of an European tribe, I feel that my community has no
rights (nor skill, nor need) to do such a job. And I feel that when
strangers (missionaries, anthropologists) actually did this, they always
ended up with poor results. Who decided, for instance, to use rare IPA
symbols to write some African languages? Probably an anthropologist who was
only interested in a very "scientific" recording of sounds -- and did not
care too much that natives would, one day, have had troubles with computer
keyboards or adhesive letters on road signs...


> -----Original Message-----
> From: []
> Sent: 1999 October 03, Sunday 13.40
> To: Unicode List
> Subject: Re: A basic question on encoding Latin characters)
> Edward wrote:
> >Fascinating thought. How many ethnic groups are there with
> written languages? I remember when The Book of a Thousand
> Tongues (Bible Society, London, 1972 IIRC, out of print) came
> out, and I hear that there is a Book of Two Thousand Tongues in
> the works. I also heard about a long-range plan involving SIL
> to create writing systems for the rest of the 6,000-odd
> languages listed by Ethnologue sometime before hundreds of them
> go extinct.
> >How are we doing? Who works on creating writing systems? How
> many new characters are we likely to need that can't be handled
> with composition?
> I'm not aware of any long-range plan on the part of SIL that I
> would describe in the terms you did. It suggests that we'd be
> setting e.g. a hundred people to sit down and crank out
> orthographies. We do not just make orthography decisions
> unilaterally. Things are far more complicated than that.
> Orthography development requires a good phonological analysis
> of the particular language, an even better understanding of the
> sociolinguistic and politicolinguistic factors at play in the
> particular context, and strong interaction with the user
> community - they need to own decisions (where governments are
> not doing that), and we need to be there as consultants. It
> also needs to be done in the context of a program for
> establishing viable literacy. In some cases, a community may
> simply not be interested in literacy, in which case we can do
> at most preliminary work, but no established writing system
> results.
> In addition to a count of languages in the Ethnologue, I have
> access to some statistics regarding Bible translation
> (something we try to keep track of) that don't talk exactly
> about # of languages with writing systems, but are suggestive
> of how many languages have writing systems:
> # of living languages (current Ethnologue count): 6809
> Bible translation needs:
> Definite need: 914
> Definite need but work is on hold: 3
> Probable need: 270
> Possible need: 2250
> Unlikely need: 175
> Reported bilingual: 246
> Nearly extinct: 413
> Need revision or new translation: 51
> Bible: 333
> NT: 876
> In progress: 1278
> I divided the BT needs statistics into two parts: the first
> part are those that likely *don't* have writing systems
> (#=4271); the second part represent those languages that would
> probably already have writing systems (#=2538), though some of
> these may no longer be viable languages.
> These are rough estimates only. An exact amount would be much
> harder to work out. E.g. for how many languages did someone
> translate all or some of the Bible where literacy never got
> established, or where there was a tradition of literacy that
> has not continued? (E.g. Northern Thai had an established
> tradition of literacy, and the Lanna script was adopted for
> neighboring language groups, such as Tai Lue, over which they
> had influence, but literacy in N. Thai began to die off as
> government schools teaching Siamese became establish in N.
> Thailand in the earlier part of this century. Today, only a
> very small portion of N. Thais can read Lanna script, though
> the Tai Lue writing system based on Lanna script is still very
> viable, even though the government in PRC introduced a new
> writing system - New Tai Lue script - in the 1950s.) There are
> also situations in which several writing systems may have been
> developed but none has become established; it may not be easy
> to determine in some such cases whether to count that language
> among the "already have"s or the "don't yet have"s.
> Peter

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