Box

A friend wrote me an email in Hebrew with a technical question about Google Box.

Google Box? That’s a Google service that i haven’t heard about. I heard about I’m feeling lucky, Site search, GMail, Maps, Product Search, Scholar, Buzz, Books…

Oh, Books. (If you’re into general linguistics, you may call it “scanning the paradigmatic axis in slow motion”.)

Hebrew has several spelling standards. None of which is actually used consistently by the general public. The root cause of the confusion is that the Hebrew alphabet only has consonant letters and the vowels are marked by a set of separate signs called “vowel points” or “niqqud” (also spelled nikud etc.; transliteration of Hebrew is also very inconsistent in actual practice). The vowel points are rarely written at all. It doesn’t mean, however, that the vowels aren’t written at all. Some consonant letters are used as vowels, albeit in a rather peculiar way.

For the sake of simplicity i’ll just say that in the most common type of spelling the vowels /u/ and /o/ are both spelled with the letter vav (also called waw). The same letter also marks the consonant /v/, but more often it is a vowel. With the help of rather wondrous intuition most Israelis, when reading, understand whether it is /u/, /o/ or /v/ according to the word, without giving it much thought. It becomes problematic when foreign words need to be transliterated into Hebrew: The English words “box” and “books” are transliterated as, more or less, “bwqs”.

It is possible to discriminate between the two, by using a point from the niqqud system: A point inside the letter vav means that it is to be read as /u/, and a point above it means that it is to be read as /o/. There is no way to type it on the common Hebrew keyboard, however. Or, more precisely, there is a way, but the key combination is very tricky and there’s no drawing on the keyboard that hints at it, so most Israelis don’t know that it is possible. And when you don’t know that it’s possible, it’s as good as impossible.

I’d like to change that. I’d like to make the vowel points available to the general public using computers. So that not only professional book editors will be able to use them, but everyone. So i’m working with the Israeli Institute of Standards to revise the standard keyboard.

Until i’m done, try reading the Wikipedia articles Holam and Kubutz and Shuruk.

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6 Responses to “Box”


  1. 1 Artyom 2010-02-13 at 13:50

    So i’m working with the Israeli Institute of Standards to revise the standard keyboard.

    What layout do you want to be adopted by the Israeli Institute of Standards? The windows most popular layout is quite hard to use. Also it misses some important characters like maqaf “־” ( “-” is not “־”) and RTL and LTR Unicode characters that are extremely important in writing
    mixed Hebrew and latin text.

    So the good base would be lyx layout that is used widely in X server based software: Linux, BSD, Solaris. I assume you are familiar with it. For example patah “ַ” is written as shift+”פ”. that is very convenient then placement on “numbers”, also it includes currency symbol: “₪”.

    The only missing characters in Lyx layout (as in standard Windows layout as well) are Cantillation Marks (teamim) used in religious texts. Lyx and be easily extended with these also I’m not sure if the last are necessary.

    So what are your suggestions and who are you working with?

    • 2 aharoni 2010-02-13 at 14:08

      The de-facto Windows layout also includes the ₪ sign, but no-one knows it, because keyboard manufacturers don’t put it on the key itself. It’s completely ridiculous and i want to change it. To type it on Windows, press AltGr-4 (it’s with the $ sign, which more or less makes sense).

      I don’t really know what the layout will be. The maqaf will definitely be there and all of the niqqud. And it must be easy to type it. So it won’t be CapsLock+Shift+invisible key. My dream is that it will be possible to type niqqud without Shift, Alt or Control, because i strongly believe that niqqud marks and letters are “equal citizens”. But in practice that would be hard, because the space on the physical keyboard is limited.

      Many people in the Israeli Free Software community recommend me the LyX layout, but i doubt that those people actually use niqqud in their writing. Correct me if i’m wrong.

      Oh, and of course the niqqud marks will be written on the keys. That’s the single most important part. I can’t say it strong enough. The public must know that niqqud exists.

      It is not my intention to do things on my own and make all Hebrew speakers do what i want. I want as many people as possible to participate in this and give their ideas. You are welcome to attend the meeting in the ISS on Sunday. Email me for more details.

      • 3 Artyom 2010-02-13 at 14:41

        Many people in the Israeli Free Software community recommend me the LyX layout, but i doubt that those people actually use niqqud in their writing. Correct me if i’m wrong.

        Yes, and probably mostly them because LyX makes it very easy: “קָל לִכְתֹּב עִם נִּקוּד” probably I did some mistakes because this is intuitive: kamatz on Kuf letter, hirriq on Het, Dagesh on Dalet, it also makes it easier to adopt because it does not
        require replacement of Hardware — even if you don’t have vowel marks on existing keyboard you can easily use LyX layout for adding vowel marks. Note, I use vowels mostly when I need to distinguish between two words that may have different meaning in vowel-less writing.

        Another **VERY** important point is presense of LRM/RLM marks (I incorrecly called them RTL/LTR marks) that are extreamly important for writing, see http://art-blog.no-ip.info/newpress/blog/post/121, they exist in Lyx layout (I don’t think they exist in present layouts).

        So yes, LyX is commonly used layout and it is very convenient so I suggest start with it. It makes writing text with vowel marks quite intuitive and simple, not Ctrl+Alt keys only shift!

        Start with it.

        My dream is that it will be possible to type niqqud without Shift, Alt or Control, because i strongly believe that niqqud marks and letters are equal citizens

        Are letters “A” and “a” are equal citizens in English? Are “П” and “п” are equal citizens in Russian? Yes. But some written with shift and some not. You can’t add about 10 keys to keybord just for Niqqud support. Too many people would be unhappy
        with it including hardware manufactures — think of adding 10 keys to laptop keyboard!

        So you have to use Shift that is quite convenient in most cases. So listen to FOSS community and and start with Good existing keyboard standard.

        Adding some niqqud images to keyboard is much simpler then adding 10 keys.

        • 4 aharoni 2010-02-13 at 15:12
          Many people in the Israeli Free Software community recommend me the LyX layout, but i doubt that those people actually use niqqud in their writing. Correct me if i’m wrong.

          Yes, and probably mostly them because LyX makes it very easy.

          “Probably” is the keyword. I’d really like to have some harder numbers. How often do Israeli FOSS people actually type niqqud in their day-to-day writing? (One would also ask – how often do they actually type Hebrew at all?)

          And what about the people who prepare children books for printing? Do they use LyX, Windows or Mac? I asked a few of them. No-one of them uses LyX. Most of them use Windows and hate it. Some use custom solutions (and hate it, too!) Unfortunately, i don’t have better statistics.

          And it’s not completely intuitive. Hiriq on Het? Why not Holam on Het? Why not Hiriq on Yud?

          Are letters “A” and “a” are equal citizens in English?

          ‘A’ and ‘a’ are equal citizens. But ‘A’ appears at most once or twice in every sentence, and ‘a’ is much more frequent, so it’s OK to use Shift for capitals.

          Kamatz, on the other hand, is very frequent in fully vocalized text. But that’s why i say that it’s “my dream” – because i realize that most texts are not fully vocalized and won’t be any time soon.

          And no, i don’t want to add keys to the keyboard. In fact, i would gladly give up some existing keys and put niqqud on them instead. For example, @, & and ^ are completely unneeded in a Hebrew text. (I would gladly put the Hebrew final letters ך‎, ם‎, ן‎, ף‎, ץ on Shift – their frequency is similar to the frequency of capital letters in European languages. But it would be too hard to convince the public to switch to such a layout.)

          So listen to FOSS community and and start with Good existing keyboard standard.

          I listen to the FOSS community, but the FOSS community should work harder to prove that the LyX layout is actually Good. I am not saying that it’s Bad; i am just saying that i’m not so convinced that it’s Good. I don’t want to sound patronizing, but my impression is that the people who created it didn’t know too much about the actual usage of the niqqud. But then again, correct me if i’m wrong.

          The correct vocalization of קל לכתוב עם ניקוד is קַל לִכְתֹּב עִם נִקּוּד. If you want, i’ll gladly explain why. My dream is that it will be as easy as typing “qal lixttob `im niqqud”. (It’s not important to argue here about the details of this transliteration – it’s just a quick example.)

        • 5 Artyom 2010-02-13 at 16:00

          For example, @, & and ^ are completely unneeded in a Hebrew text.

          You still need Shift for these letters.

          I would gladly put the Hebrew final letters ך‎, ם‎, ן‎, ף‎, ץ on Shift – their frequency is similar to the frequency of capital letters in European languages. But it would be too hard to convince the public to switch to such a layout.

          Very good point: it is known that Dvorak should be better then QWERTY but most of the world uses QWERTY because that it what they are familiar with.

          If you put Nikkud on 1-9 letters you may help to people who write books for kids but you would not help general population that need to use Nikkud rarely. In fact you don’t need nikkud, only in special cases.

          So the best solution would be extending existing layout with Niqqud so general public would be able to use it easily.

          How often do Israeli FOSS people actually type niqqud in their day-to-day writing?

          Take a look on this forum: http://www.whatsup.org.il/ I do not have any statistics but if you would ask Meir (mksoft) to find what is the frequency of vowel letters in this form I’m sure you’d find that is is quite much bigger then on other non-FOSS forums. So try to find.

          One would also ask – how often do they actually type Hebrew at all?

          Quite a lot: http://planet.linux.org.il/. Don’t take Shlomi-Fish as example because it writes a lot in English, it’s blog in is mostly in English.

          And what about the people who prepare children books for printing? Do they use LyX, Windows or Mac? I asked a few of them. No-one of them uses LyX. Most of them use Windows and hate it. Some use custom solutions (and hate it, too!) Unfortunately, i don’t have better statistics.

          All Book publishing software is written for Windows, some for Mac and none for Linux (with exception of LaTeX which is very problematic to work with Hebrew) See: http://art-blog.no-ip.info/newpress/blog/cat/17

          So you can’t blame them for not using LyX, because they just do not have it.

          Also, take a look on this link: http://www.cs.tau.ac.il/~stoledo/Tools/Keyboards/ this is improved keyboard layout created by Prof. Sivan Toledo, that had also developed a method for adding Niqqud to LaTeX that is today used.

          It’s layout is very similar to LyX (but not exactly). So there is
          just no tools for windows to use LyX layout so nobody knows it.

          Another issue: note, writing books with Niqqud or writing poetry is far from being the most common use of Niqqud. Many people would like to add some vowels to the text but most of them can’t. I know how to do it in Windows but kill me if I remember where are they placed. So when I want to add some niqqud and I work on Windows I just don’t do this, under Linux I just do it like in case of difference between לָמה and לְמה.

          So. If you really want to make niqqud reality start from some existing background.

          P.S.: Do you have Linux installed? If not install it and try to work with Niqqud in lyx layout.

    • 6 aharoni 2010-02-13 at 14:19

      Oh, and it’s also important to remember the ultra-modern toys like iPhone, iPad and Optimus. iPhone and iPad are ridden with DRM and the hype around them is completely ridiculous and while Optimus is a wonderful gadget, it is very expensive, but despite those problems, they all point to the fact that the world is gradually moving towards a different idea of what a keyboard is. Touch-screens may make adding the niqqud to the keyboard easier.


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