Mongol Bichig, or why Microsoft Internet Explorer is better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera

After writing this post I found out that Google Chrome, in fact, does support vertical Mongolian text.

The title of this post is designed to catch the eye. Microsoft Internet Explorer is not better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera – it’s worse than them in every imaginable regard.

Except one: the support for Mongol Bichig, the vertical Mongolian script.

Text in vertical Mongolian
Text in vertical Mongolian

Mongolian script is unique: its letters are connected, similarly to Arabic and its lines are written vertically. About three million Mongols in the independent republic of Mongolia use this script mostly for historical purposes, and use the Cyrillic script in their daily life, but the classical vertical script is the regular script for nearly six million Mongols in China – that’s about twice as much people.

The only browser that is able to display the vertical Mongolian script is Microsoft Internet Explorer. I don’t really know why Microsoft bothered to do it; maybe because the government of the People’s Republic of China demanded it. If that is true, then i salute the government of the People’s Republic of China. And i definitely salute Microsoft. I don’t like Microsoft’s insistence on keeping their code proprietary, but pioneering the support for this script, or any other, is praiseworthy.

I am very sad that at this time i cannot recommend my Mongolian friends to use my favorite browser, Firefox, or other modern browsers such as Google Chrome and Opera. For all their modernity, speed, feature richness and standards compliance, they are useless to over six million people who want to read and write in the vertical Mongolian script. At most, these browsers can display the script horizontally and with some letters incorrectly rendered. This also means that the only useful operating system for these people is Microsoft Windows.

One explanation that i heard for not supporting the vertical Mongolian script is that the CSS writing modes standard is not completely defined. This is actually a good and even noble reason, but when the most basic ability to read a language is in question, experimental support is better than no support.

So, which modern free browser will be the first to support the Mongolian script? I guess that it will be Firefox, given its excellent track record in supporting Unicode, and that Google Chrome will follow it after three years or so. But if Chrome developers surprise me and get there first, i’ll be just as happy. In any case, i am waiting impatiently, along with more than six million Mongols.

* * *

A completely unrelated postscript, intentionally hidden here, feel free to stop reading now: This morning i woke up to find that my Planet Mozilla feed was filled with reactions to a post by Gervaise Markham a.k.a. Gerv, in which he advocated keeping marriage defined as a union between a man and a woman, essentially opposing gay marriage. A lot of people were angry that anti-gay comments appear in a Mozilla-related feed and a lot of people were angry that anything off-topic appears there. Some people supported Gerv in different ways.

Gerv is a very well-known and very talented Mozilla programmer, and also a devout Christian. His blog is called “Hacking for Christ”. There’s nothing weird or wrong about it – there are many other excellent Christian hackers, like Perl’s Larry Wall and Jonathan Worthington and Mozilla’s Jonathan Kew. Gerv’s comment wasn’t particularly hateful; as it often goes, it focused on the legal side of things. Gerv is also an unusually charming person; i had the pleasure to meet him in Berlin.

All that said, i support gay marriage, i don’t support Gerv’s comment and i think that he shouldn’t have post it that way. But once he did, hey – water under the bridge. I care much more about his contributions to Mozilla’s code than about his social, legal and religious opinions.

And the loveliest part of it all is that in one the many comments to his post, i found a link to the play “8”, about the fight for recognizing gay marriage in California. On one hand, it’s a very well played PR stunt, with the highest league stars such as like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Yeardley Smith, John C. Reilly and George Takei. On the other hand, it’s actually worth watching. If this is what came out of that poorly placed blog post, then i’m not complaining.


17 thoughts on “Mongol Bichig, or why Microsoft Internet Explorer is better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera

  1. Hi Amir,
    Work on supporting writing-mode is underway but it’s a big job. Rest assured, this is definitely on the radar.
    I live in Japan so I’m keen to see it implemented and we have a number of folk in Mongolia really supportive of the work. They’ll make sure we do a good job with Mongolian.
    Thanks for your support!

  2. FWIW, Microsoft started working on mongolian script (and more generally all asian scripts) back in 2001/2002 IIRC at a time nobody was really interested in them “because of the size of the corresponding market”, and yes this is a quote.

    1. You don’t need to convince me – it makes perfect sense to me :)

      I am curious about the source of this quote though.

  3. “I care much more about his contributions to Mozilla’s code than about his social, legal and religious opinions.”

    I think you are heading into dangerous territory there. Just how far can a person go in his/her personal life before it matters?

    As you note, his blog is called “Hacking for Christ”, so it would be unsurprising (and well within his rights) to make a post against gay marriage there. However, using his position with Mozilla to promote those opinions seems out of order to me. Regardless of where one stands with respect to this issue, such a post can be nothing but divisive, and does nothing to further the collaboration of Mozillans.

    1. I’m sick of everyone thinking its okay to judge one group of people for their beliefs but not another group of people for theirs.

      That is to say, right now its okay to support gay marriage and its wrong to oppose it, even though both are beliefs held by perfectly rational people. Fifty years ago, it would’ve been the opposite.

      Why isn’t it possible to support a cause (whether gay marriage, suffrage or others) without stiffling the free-expression of those opposed?

  4. It’s a few years since this post, but Firefox now supports Mongolian traditional script, along with Chrome, Safari, Opera…

    IE does too, but it’s bugginess now makes it a poor choice.

      1. Android since 6.0 version has mongol bichig fonts by default too.

        A site about mongolian wrestling from Inner Mongolia (trousers are specific of Inner Mongolia) that works nicely on firefox:

        A wikipedia in traditionnal mongolian (as doesn’t want to create one).ᠶᠡᠬᠡ_ᠬᠢᠩᠭᠠᠨ

        There is also the famous text from Arghun (Ilkhanid khan of Iran) to Philiipe le Bel (King of France) in traditional Mongolian (with a chinese stamp) somewhere on wikisource, but I can’t find it back.

        1. Actually, I’m on the committee that approves Wikipedias in new languages, and we are not opposed to a Wikipedia in vertical Mongolian in principle. In the past, the browsers and the MediaWiki software didn’t support vertical text, but now they do, so there are no technical blockers. If there are willing contributors, I’d love to see it open.

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