Tamil Aytham and the role of Unicode names

From: William J Poser (wjposer@ldc.upenn.edu)
Date: Mon Apr 04 2005 - 01:00:42 CST

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    If Unicode character names are taken as descriptions, contrary to the intention
    of the Consortium, there are much more egregious "errors" than for Tamil Aytham,
    which will perhaps make Sinnathurai Srivas feel less insulted. The Canadian Aboriginal
    Syllabics range represents the union of a handful of different writing systems.
    They are all historically derived from the Cree system. The versions used for Ojibwe,
    Inuktitut, Slave, Dogrib, and Chipewyan stick relatively close to the original system,
    and where they differ differ primarily by the addition of characters (since the
    phonemic inventory of Cree is small). The Carrier version, however, not only
    added quite a few characters so as to represent its much larger inventory, and discarded
    most of the characters in the original system, it was also thoroughly restructured
    and rationalized. As a result, the phonetic values of the few characters that
    Carrier shares with the other languages are different from their Unicode
    names more often than not since the latter are based primarily on Cree.

    If the Unicode names are taken to be descriptive this would be misleading
    and irritating, but it doesn't matter much because the names are really just
    an alternative encoding, one that is perhaps for some people less intimidating
    and more mnemonic than hex numbers.

    I suspect that there are two factors that make people take the names more
    seriously than is intended. One is sensitivity due to a history of suppression
    or second-class treatment of the language. This is probably the primary
    factor in the case of Tamil, whose speakers perceive it as playing second
    fiddle to Hindi (and in Sri Lanka, Sinhala). The other is that really good comprehensive
    reference materials on writing systems do not exist, as a result of
    which the Unicode standard is called upon by some to serve as such.
    When it proves imperfect in this role, it is judged inadequate by a standard
    it was never intended to meet.


    Bill Poser, Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania
    http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~wjposer/ billposer@alum.mit.edu

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