A Relevant Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel is frequently used as a symbol of foreign languages. For example, several language software packages are named after it, such as the Babylon electronic dictionary, MediaWiki’s Babel extension and the Babelfish translation service (itself named after the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide).

In this post I shall use the Tower of Babel in a somewhat more relevant and specific way: It will speak about multilingualism and about Babel itself.

This is how most people saw the Wikipedia article about the Tower of Babel until today:

The Tower of Babel article. Notice the pointless squares in the Akkadian name. They are called "tofu" in the jargon on internationalization programmers.

The tower of Babel. Notice the pointless squares in the Akkadian name. They are called “tofu” in the jargon on internationalization programmers.

And this is how most people will see it from today:

And we have the name written in real Akkadian cuneiform!

And we have the name written in real Akkadian cuneiform!

Notice how the Akkadian name now appears as actual Akkadian cuneiform, and not as meaningless squares. Even if you, like most people, cannot actually read cuneiform, you probably understand that showing it this way is more correct, useful and educational.

This is possible thanks to the webfonts technology, which was enabled on the English Wikipedia today. It was already enabled in Wikipedias in some languages for many months, mostly in languages of India, which have severe problems with font support in the common operating systems, but now it’s available in the English Wikipedia, where it mostly serves to show parts of text that are written in exotic fonts.

The current iteration of the webfonts support in Wikipedia is part of a larger project: the Universal Language Selector (ULS). I am very proud to be one of its developers. My team in Wikimedia developed it over the last year or so, during which it underwent a rigorous process of design, testing with dozens of users from different countries, development, bug fixing and deployment. In addition to webfonts it provides an easy way to pick the user interface language, and to type in non-English languages (the latter feature is disabled by default in the English Wikipedia; to enable it, click the cog icon near “Languages” in the sidebar, then click “Input” and “Enable input tools”). In the future it will provide even more abilities, so stay tuned.

If you edit Wikipedia, or want to try editing it, one way in which you could help with the deployment of webfonts would be to make sure that all foreign strings in Wikipedia are marked with the appropriate HTML lang attribute; for example, that every Vietnamese string is marked as <span lang=”vi” dir=”ltr”>. This will help the software apply the webfonts correctly, and in the future it will also help spelling and hyphenation software, etc.

This wouldn’t be possible without the help of many, many people. The developers of Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Opera, who developed the support for webfonts in these browsers; The people in Wikimedia who designed and developed the ULS: Alolita Sharma, Arun Ganesh, Brandon Harris, Niklas Laxström, Pau Giner, Santhosh Thottingal and Siebrand Mazeland; The many volunteers who tested ULS and reported useful bugs; The people in Unicode, such as Michael Everson, who work hard to give a number to every letter in every imaginable alphabet and make massive online multilingualism possible; And last but not least, the talented and generous people who developed all those fonts for the different scripts and released them under Free licenses. I send you all my deep appreciation, as a developer and as a reader of Wikipedia.

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4 Responses to “A Relevant Tower of Babel”


  1. 1 שני 2013-07-03 at 00:21

    אמיר, אין כמוך. כבוד.


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