International Phonetic Alphabet WIN

You love the International Phonetic Alphabet, do you? I mean, everybody loves the International Phonetic Alphabet. You know, these funny weird letters that tell you that the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull is [ˈɛɪjaˌfjatl̥aˌjœkʏtl̥].

But seriously, if you didn’t study Linguistics or didn’t at least study in a school in Russia, where English pronunciation is taught using the IPA, then you probably hate the International Phonetic Alphabet. In fact, chances are that you hate the International Phonetic Alphabet even more if you did. It’s weird, it’s hard to read unless you practiced for many months, it’s impossible to type and common computer fonts don’t support it well.

But people in the world of Free Software don’t like to reinvent the wheel. That’s why the developers of Mozilla Firefox, for example, strive to support defined standards, unlike the developers of Microsoft Internet Explorer who (officially) try to play nicely with existing websites and “not to break the web”. And that’s why Wikipedia chose to write all pronunciations in the International Phonetic Alphabet – because it’s an accepted standard, which is in principle common to all languages. Prof. Asher Laufer of the Hebrew University, a member of the International Phonetic Association, praises Wikipedia for deciding to stick to the IPA in all articles in his textbook “Chapters in Phonetics and Phonetic Transcription”.

But there’s still the problem with the fonts. There are Free fonts that support the IPA well, most notably Charis SIL, but unfortunately it is not included with Windows, even though it is Free and beautiful. So if you use Windows to browse Wikipedia, you may see IPA pronunciations not as they should look. The fonts support in Windows XP is quite broken; it’s better in Vista and Windows 7, but still imperfect. So you should download and install Charis SIL. Until today, however, even if you would install it, correct display of IPA wouldn’t be guaranteed, because different browsers made weird and inconsistent decisions about the font selection.

So here’s the WIN: I opened a bug asking to make Wikipedia display IPA consistently in different browsers on Windows, and Derk-Jan Hartman, a.k.a TheDJ, very quickly fixed it! Thank you, Derk-Jan Hartman.

Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world

Through i-iter i came upon this interesting post: Tamil, Kannada and the middle path. Tamil and Kannada are two important languages spoken in the south of India and their speakers are quite proud of their identity.

The article complains that not enough is being done for the linguistic normalization of non-Hindi languages in India. It was very interesting to read it and, being Israeli, i was surprised to see the compliments to “Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world who aren’t wasting time tom-toming about antiquity, beauty or originality, but are instead investing their time, money and energy in using their languages for almost all known purposes”.

I was curious – why did they choose these three? Why not Russians and French, who use their languages for everything because many of them openly consider them to be better than all the others? Why not Catalans, whose language is in a political situation which is much more similar to that of Tamil and Kannada?

And why Israelis? Sure, we use Hebrew a lot; Hebrew Wikipedia, for example, is our pride. But i don’t think that we use Hebrew enough. For example, a lot of people (not all) write email in English. They write email in English even if they don’t know English well. They write email in English even though practically all the technical problems with encoding and bi-directionality were solved years ago. And they write email in English even if the email is about a topic for which Hebrew is perfectly suitable: one could argue that English is more convenient for writing about software or physics, but quite a lot of people write email in English just to to tell recent family news or to make an appointment.

I used to do that, too, but i made a conscious decision to stop writing email in English unless it is absolutely necessary. I tell all my friends about it. Some of them are indifferent and some of them – especially those in the software industry – say that Israel should have adopted English and not Hebrew as its language. Shame on them. Students think that i know English well, so they often ask me what is the most polite way to make an appointment with their professors in English, and i always tell them: “If your professor can read Hebrew, just write the email in Hebrew!”

Of course, there’s also the matter of university papers. In physics, for example, even though Hebrew is used in classroom, it goes for granted that papers at M.A.-level and higher are written only in English. The need for an English version is understandable, because in the world scale very few people would be able to read a paper in Hebrew, but i would imagine that it’s much better to write the paper in Hebrew and translate it. Yes, it would take time and probably money, but it is nevertheless useful and not just for the honor of the Hebrew language: it would actually advance science and education, because this way people would express themselves in their own language and think about physics instead of thinking about English.

Finally, there’s Facebook. For some reason many Israelis still use Facebook with the English interface – again, even though they don’t know English well, and even though they never read or write anything in English there. The translation of Facebook into Hebrew is terrible, and what’s especially frustrating is that i would gladly fix it, but i can’t, because the interface for submitting translation corrections is absolutely unusable. I nevertheless use Facebook in Hebrew, because it solves the bi-directionality problems – for example, the notorious problem with the punctuation marks appearing at the wrong end of the sentence. There was a newspaper report saying that Facebook influences Israeli children so much that they got used to writing the question mark at the beginning of the sentence – and that’s how they submit their homework! Some Israelis develop weird tricks to make the punctuation appear on the correct side of the sentence, for example by adding a letter after the period – compare “אתה בא לכדורגל בערב?י” and “אתה בא לכדורגל בערב?” – notice the placement of the question mark and the redundant letter in the first sentence. But they could simply switch to Hebrew. (And one day i will write an email to Facebook offices and tell them that they really should improve the translation.)

It’s quite pleasing to see that speakers of Kannada look up to us, but it doesn’t mean that we already did all we could to normalize Hebrew.

(And why am i writing this in English? Because i started writing it as a comment for that blog and it grew into a post by itself.)


Dear English-speaking friends! Do you use the word “relations” as a synonym of “relationship”, in the sense of “everything that goes between a romantically-involved couple”? Thanks in advance.


The second best way to enhance your English vocabulary is to read a thesaurus.

The best way is to read music reviews. Here’s what Robert Christgau has to say about Yo La Tengo’s Electr-O-Pura:

Brimful of punk, fuzz, feedback, noise, and the lovingly amped squelches of fingers sliding off strings, their seventh album is a subcultural tour de force, luxuriating so sybaritically in guitar sound that I’m reluctant to mention that the tunes are pretty good. That’s why it’s the best record they’ve ever made, though.

I thought that “sybaritically” is a typo.

Obnoxious Firefox Licensing

Mozilla Firefox comes in many localized versions for many different languages, which is a good thing.

Mozilla Firefox has built-in spell-checking, which is also a good thing.

So, for example, if you download the installer for English (US) or for Lithuanian and install it and go write an email in GMail or edit a Wikipedia article in one of these languages, you’ll immediately see your spelling errors. This makes perfect sense.

But if you download an installer localized for English (UK), Catalan or Hebrew, you won’t see your spelling errors. The Firefox binary has spell-checking capabilities, but the installer doesn’t include the actual dictionary. Firefox-compatible dictionaries for these languages exist, and they are licensed as Free Software (GPL or LGPL), and you can add them manually after installing (right-click -> Languages -> Add Dictionaries), but here comes the ridiculous part: The guys behind refuse to include those dictionaries in the installer. The reason, apparently, is that to be included in the installer, the dictionary must be 300% compatible with Firefox’s license, because Firefox is tri-licensed as GPL/LGPL/MPL, and a dictionary that is GPL-only is not good enough.

It is hard enough to convince people to install Firefox in the first place; convincing them to install additional dictionaries, plug-ins, add-ons etc. tends to frustrate them even more. Contrary to the belief which is popular among Firefox power users, most people are not add-on junkies and don’t right-click everywhere. So, even though Firefox users in London, Barcelona and Jerusalem can see Firefox menus in their respective languages, they have dead-weight spell-checking code on their hard drives, because they didn’t get a spelling dictionary in the installation, and many of them don’t even know that a Firefox-compatible spelling dictionary for their language exists.

Is this obnoxious licensing requirement really required? Isn’t Free Software licensing supposed to make distributing software easier?

When i told my wife Hadar about it, she said that it is as ridiculous as the stuff i tell her about DRM.

See also:


I saw a Hebrew speaker typing the word “mistypiping” in an email. She meant to type “mistyping”. Unintended contextual humor.

I told her that “typo” is the usual English word. “Mistyping” exists: it appears in Merriam-Webster’s list of words with the mis- prefix and Oxford English Dictionary says that it exists since 1977. But it is obviously rare.

She eventually wrote “typo”, but wasn’t too happy about it. She said that it’s the first time that she sees the word “typo”, and it would be much harder for her to understand it if she received it in an email.

If you love Esperanto, you must be really happy now to be reading this, as this is exactly how Esperanto works, or at least supposed to work: as few roots as possible and as much regularity in prefixes and suffixes as possible.

More China

Tackling Qingdao’s invading algae, BBC News today:

Locals say the algae has never been so thick here – agricultural and industrial pollution are thought to be responsible.

But China, embarrassed by the most vivid proof yet of its environmental problems, says the algae is a natural occurrence, and blames the sea for being too salty, the sun for being too hot.

At a news conference earlier in the day one official suggested that algae could be good for you.

“The Japanese eat it,” she said.

There’s a problem with Engrish: When an English sentence that a Chinese or a Japanese person says has blatant grammar mistakes or very weird words, then it’s clear that he may not be communicating what he meant. But what if the grammar is correct, but the content is weird? You’ll never know.