Archive for the 'keyboard' Category

Happy Africa Day: Keyboards for All African Wikipedia Languages

Happy Africa Day!

To celebrate this, I am happy to make a little announcement: It is now possible to write in all the Wikipedias of all the languages of Africa, with all the special letters that are difficult to find on common keyboards. You can do it on any computer, without buying any new equipment, installing any software, or changing operating system preferences. Please see the full list of languages and instructions.

This release completes a pet project that I began a year ago: to make it easy to write in all the languages of Africa in which there is a Wikipedia or an active Wikipedia Incubator.

Most of these languages are written in the Latin alphabet, but with addition of many special letters such as Ŋ, Ɛ, Ɣ, and Ɔ, or letters with accents such as Ũ or Ẹ̀. These letters are hard to type on common keyboards, and in my meetings with African people who would write in Wikipedia in their language this is very often brought up as a barrier to writing confidently.

Some of these languages have keyboard layouts that are built into modern operating systems, but my experience showed me that to enable them one has to dig deep in the operating system preferences, which is difficult for many people, and even after enabling the right thing in the preferences, some keyboards are still wrong and hard to use. I hope that this will be built into future operating system releases in a more convenient way, just as it is for languages such as French or Russian, but in the mean time I provide this shortcut.

The new software released this week to all Wikimedia sites and to translatewiki.net makes it possible to type these special characters without installing any software or pressing any combining keys such as Ctrl or Alt. In most cases you simply need to press the tilde character (~) followed by the letter that is similar to the one you want to type. For example:

  • Ɓ is written using ~B
  • Ɛ is written using ~E
  • Ɔ is written using ~O
    … and so on.

Some of these languages are written in their own unique writing systems. N’Ko and Vai keyboards were made by myself, mostly based on ideas from freely licensed keyboard layouts by Keyman. (A keyboard for the Amharic language, also written with its own script, has had keyboards made by User:Elfalem for a while. I am mentioning it here for completeness.)

This release addresses only laptop and desktop computers. On mobile phones and tablets most of these languages can be typed using apps such as Gboard (also in iPhone), SwiftKey (also on iPhone), or African Keyboard. If you aren’t doing this already, try these apps on your phone, and start exchanging messages with your friends and family in your language, and writing in Wikipedia in your language on your phone! If you are having difficulties doing this, please contact me and I’ll do my best to help.

The technology used to make this is the MediaWiki ULS extension and the jquery.ime package.

I would like to thank all the people who helped:

  • Mahuton Possoupe (Benin), with whom I made the first of these keyboards, for the Fon language, at the Barcelona Hackathon.
  • Kartik Mistry, Santhosh Thottingal (India), Niklas Laxström (Finland), and Petar Petkovich (Serbia), who reviewed the numerous code patches that I made for this project.

This is quite a big release or code. While I made quite a lot of effort to test everything, code may always have bugs: missing languages, wrong or missing letters, mistakes in documentation, and so on. I’ll be happy to hear any feedback and to fix the bugs.

And now it’s all up to you! I hope that these keyboard layouts make it easier for all of you, African Wikimedians, to write in your languages, to write and translate articles, and share more knowledge!

Again, happy Africa day!

The full list of languages for which there is now a keyboard in ULS and jquery.ime:

  • Afrikaans
  • Akan
  • Amharic
  • Bambara
  • Berber
  • Dagbani
  • Dinka
  • Ewe
  • Fula
  • Fon
  • Ga
  • Hausa
  • Igbo
  • Kabiye
  • Kabyle
  • Kikuyu
  • Luganda
  • Lingala
  • Malagasy
  • N’Ko
  • Sango
  • Sotho
  • Northern Sotho
  • Koyraboro Senni Songhay
  • Tigrinya
  • Vai
  • Venda
  • Wolof
  • Yoruba
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How Gboard Could Be Better for Hebrew

Oh (edit): Most of these suggestions are implemented as of February 7 2018. The only significant change that still does not seem to be implemented is the Oleh character. Thank you, Google, for your continued improvements of Gboard.

I mostly use the Gboard app for writing on my phone. The Samsung keyboard is generally not bad, but it doesn’t include Hebrew vowels, and I need them.

There are, however, several characters that are needed for Hebrew, and that aren’t included in Gboard, and some unnecessary characters could be removed.

These can be removed:

  • Long-pressing the minus (-) in the punctuation keyboard shows interpunct (·) and the em dash (—). They are unnecessary for Hebrew. The en dash (–), must not be removed, but see below.
  • The low line (_) appears twice in the punctuation keyboard: as its own key to the left of &, and as an option when long-pressing the minus (-). One of them can be removed. I’ll further argue that the en dash (–) is more useful for Hebrew than the low line (_), and the standalone low line can be replaced with the en dash. The low line is not used much anywhere except programming, while the en dash is useful for typing ranges correctly in Hebrew. I’ll readily admit that not a lot of Hebrew speakers know about the en dash’s correct semantics, but not many more people use the low line anyway.

And these should be added:

  • Maqaf (־, U+05be): It’s the Hebrew hyphen. It has different appearance and different direction semantics. It should be available when you long-press the minus in the main keyboard, and can also appear when you long-press the minus in the punctuation keyboard (for example, instead of the unnecessary em dash).
  • Geresh (׳, U+05f3) and Gershayim (״, U+05f4): These punctuation marks are similar in appearance to quotation marks, but they have different semantics. Apple went as far as replacing quotation marks on Hebrew keyboards on its devices with Geresh and Gershayim, which is an exaggeration. The usual quotation marks (‘, “) are used by most people, even though they are not perfect, and they must stay on Gboard where they are. The elegant Hebrew quotation marks (‚’„”) also appear on Gboard and must not be removed. Geresh and Gershayim can be added on the additional punctuation
  • Rafe (U+05bf): It’s a diacritic that looks like a line above a letter, and the opposite of dagesh, which is already available. It can appear when you long-press the letter resh (ר).
  • Oleh (U+05ab): It’s a diacritic that looks like a left-pointing arrow above a letter, and in modern Hebrew it signifies stress. It can appear when you long-press the letter ayin (ע).

The five character that I suggest to add are already part of the standard Hebrew keyboard (SII 1452), which is implemented in Windows 8. They must also be available in Android.

I hope that Google developers see this and make the necessary changes.

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.

Writing, part 0 – Optimus Popularis keyboard

In 2008 the Russian design firm Art.Lebedev Studio released a groundbreaking product: The Optimus Maximus keyboard. It’s a keyboard in which every key is a display that changes according to its function – for example, it shows “QWERTY” if the Shift key is pressed and “qwerty” otherwise. Of course, it also shows completely different letters if a different language is selected, for example “ןוטארק” for Hebrew.

The Optimus was quite hot in the gadget lovers’ circles, which is rather strange, because gadget lovers think that they are too cool for any languages except English, and i can hardly imagine this keyboard being really useful to anybody except linguists. Unfortunately, it costs over $2,000, and that’s the kind of money that linguists usually don’t have.

I thought that since the tablet computers with on-screen keyboards are the hottest thing in the world now, there won’t be a new version of the Optimus keyboard. Apparently, i was wrong: Art.Lebedev is taking pre-orders for the “Optimus Popularis“, a cheaper version of “Optimus Maximus”. It is cheaper, because it has less display keys.

Relatively cheaper – it still costs over a thousand dollars, for which one could buy two good tablets or three netbooks. But what’s much worse is that it doesn’t have PageUp, PageDown, Home and End keys.

Quite possibly the designers of Optimus Popularis conducted a research and found that few people actually use these keys. Quite possibly it’s even true. But i use them all the time, and will be absolutely unable to use a keyboard that doesn’t have them for more than a minute.

That’s because these keys are an essential part of my writing experience. I need quick ways to go back and forth, to the beginning and to the end of the document and of the line. Otherwise i am unable to write.

So no, i don’t want an Optimus Popularis keyboard, even for much less money. I just won’t use it. I can hardly imagine anyone who will use it seriously.


This was the first in a series of posts about writing in computers.

Keyboards, Firefox, Chrome and Privacy

I hardly ever used Google Chrome because of a bug that made the Ctrl-arrow keyboard shortcut work incorrectly in right-to-left languages. This shortcut works makes the cursor jump a word to the left or to the right. In Hebrew and Arabic it would jump to the left when the right arrow was be pressed. It works well in most other programs, but since Chrome doesn’t use the operating system’s text editing capabilities, this worked incorrectly.

I write a lot of email, blog posts and Wikipedia articles and this keyboard shortcut is essential for me, so if it doesn’t work correctly in a program, i simply cannot use it and will use the competitor, in my case Firefox. Since i love Firefox anyway, it was not really a problem for me.

It took more than two years to do it, but this bug is more or less solved now and the fix will probably be released soon. I am now trying a preliminary version and the Ctrl-arrow shortcut seems to work correctly. However, as i expected, i quickly found other problems because of which i cannot use Google Chrome. Long story short, i cannot write Russian there. It’s not that it’s impossible – it’s just way too hard for me.

I could enable the Russian keyboard layout in my operating system, but it would be very hard to use for me. Keyboards sold in my country usually come with Latin and Hebrew letters printed on the keys and not Russian. It’s possible to buy a keyboard with Russian letters on it, and i did it once, but it didn’t help me much. You see, i write Russian several times a day, but less often than i write Hebrew or English, and the Russian layout is very different from the Latin layout, so i type in it very slowly even if i have the letters in front of my eyes.

Since 2006 my solution for this issue was the Transliterator add-on for Firefox, created by Alex Benenson (thank you so much, Alex). It was first called “ToCyrillic”, because it only helped with the Cyrillic alphabet, but later it was adapted to many other languages. It allows me to type Russian phonetically, so the Latin ‘b’ is automatically converted to Cyrillic ‘б’, ‘sh’ becomes ‘ш’ etc. It works everywhere in Firefox – websites’ input fields, the address bar, the dialog windows etc.

I couldn’t find anything like it for Chrome. It’s possible that i didn’t look well enough, but the add-ons i did find that claimed to do transliteration, phonetic typing or keyboard emulation either did something completely different or asked me to allow the add-on access my data on all websites and my tabs and browsing activity. I don’t understand why such an add-on would need access to my data and browsing activity – it is only supposed to translate the characters i type into other characters and forget it.

It’s possible that the message that tells me about these privacy implications is over-zealous and the add-ons in question don’t actually breach my privacy, but it is still weird to see them, so i didn’t install them.

So there – i still have a strong reason not to move to Google Chrome. It’s not really Google’s fault. In fact, i could myself develop an extension that does something that i want – the source and the API are open and it’s probably not a lot of work. But why would i waste even a minute of my time doing such a thing if i already have Firefox and its Transliterator add-on that work perfectly well? You could say that Google Chrome is faster and uses less memory; it is not quite true in the first place, and even if it would be true, i wouldn’t care about it, because being able to write the language i want is far more important than minor differences in performance.


As a side note, in some Google websites it’s possible to type in transliteration. However, it works only on these particular sites and needs the machine to be online, because it uses a web service to translate every word. That is weird software design and has rather unacceptable privacy implications.

Wikipedia already has phonetic typing support in Malayalam, Tamil and other languages and soon it is going to be deployed to other languages. It works in-place – it translates the text immediately in the browser letter by letter. Of course, it only works in one website; it would be better to help people to enable their native keyboard layouts rather than do it in only one website, but apparently doing it this way helps people start writing and searching immediately. More details on that soon.


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