Not Just Western, Asian and Complex: The World Has More Than Three Languages

If you belong to the minority of people who only use their word processor to write documents in English, then you will hardly ever care about fonts for other languages. At most, you’ll want a different font for an emphasized word.

However, if you, like most people, write documents in other languages and scripts, you’ll usually need to choose different fonts for different languages. Some fonts include more than one script, but very few fonts include all the scripts.

Now, to specify non-Latin fonts you first need to enable support for this in your word processor, because developers of word processors assume that most people write in only one language:

LibreOffice language settings dialog with checkboxes to enable support for "Asian" and "CTL" languages
LibreOffice language settings dialog. Without getting into details, the corresponding box in Microsoft Word is similar.

After you’ve done this you’ll see a slightly different font selection dialog – now you can select the font for “Western text”, “Asian text” and “CTL text”:

LibreOffice character formatting dialog with font selection for "Western", "CTL" and "Asian" scripts.
LibreOffice character formatting dialog. Again, the corresponding dialog in Microsoft Word is similar.

This is wrong in every possible regard.

The simplest problem with this is that most people have no idea what “CTL” is. Microsoft Word calls this “Complex scripts”, and the C in CTL indeed stands for “Complex”, but most people are not supposed to know what “complex scripts” are either.

Furthermore, according to this weird division of the world’s languages, Hindi and Arabic are “complex”, but Japanese is “Asian”, even though Hindi and Arabic are also spoken in Asia. This is most probably a result of the ways Americans describe immigrants: The Chinese and the Japanese are “Asian Americans”, but Indians and Arabs are “Indian” and “Middle Eastern”.

This is preposterous. It pestered me really badly ever since i used Microsoft Word for the first time in 1997, but somehow i never bothered to complain. So here i am, finally complaining about this atrocity.

“Complex scripts” is a very old-fashioned term that survived from the time when more or less anything that wasn’t Latin was considered “complex”. More precisely, it was used for scripts that were not just rows of letters like Latin, Cyrillic and Greek, but required connected letters like Arabic, ligatures like most scripts of India and its neighbors, or right-to-left text, like Hebrew and, again, Arabic. According to this logic, Latin and Greek should be quite complex, too, since most languages written in these scripts require combinations of diacritics, like in the Lithuanian word “rūgščių̃”… but this never bothered the programmers of word processors.

So this term, “complex”, was used by programmers, and even that was hardly justified. It was never meant to be used by ordinary people. A person who writes Arabic is not supposed to know that his script is “complex”, because as far as he’s concerned it’s the simplest script there is. In fact, it’s quite insulting. And most of all, it’s hard to understand: When a person wants to select a font for Arabic text, the most logical thing to ask him is to specify an “Arabic font” – not a “complex font”.

But beyond the strange terminology there’s an even worse practical problem. Let’s say that i got used to the fact that Microsoft and LibreOffice call my script “complex”; but what if i have more than one “complex” language in my document? It’s not an edge case at all. Lately i’ve been reading–and making little edits to–a Word document, which is a grammar textbook of the Malayalam language for Hebrew-speaking students. Hebrew and Malayalam are both “complex”, but they are complex for entirely different reasons, and they need different fonts. The author of that document told me that it drove her nuts. I completely understand what was she talking about–she’s just one among millions of people who suffer from this… but for some reason not one of them complains.

The relatively convenient way to solve this problem with the current software is to use separate character styles for different “complex” languages, but most people don’t know at all what “character styles” are and even for those who know what they are this solution would be very inefficient.

So how font selection dialogs should really be done? They should treat each combination of language and script separately. This is a bit tricky, but only a bit.

The best place to start solving this would be to look at existing standards: ISO 15924, ISO 639 and the IANA Language subtag registry. ISO 15924 lists a few dozens of scripts; ISO 639 lists a few thousands of languages; the IANA Language subtag registry defines the rules for specifying combinations of languages, scripts and their varieties. Combinations are important, because it’s not enough to specify a “Latin” font or a “Serbian language”: Serbian can be written in Latin and Cyrillic, Azeri can be written in Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic–in which case its direction changes, too, etc.

This doesn’t mean at all that the font selection dialogs have to list thousands of combinations of languages and scripts. By default they should list a few languages that a user is expected to use, for example by looking which keyboard layouts the user has enabled in his operating system. And the user must be able to add more languages, by using some kind of an “Add” or “+” button: “I want to write Malayalam in this document; sometimes i want to do this in the Malayalam script in the Meera font, and sometimes i want to write it in IPA, which is a kind of a Latin script and then i want to do it in the Charis font.” In this scenario two lines would have to be added to the dialog using that add button.

There may be more clever ways to solve this problem, but at this stage my proposal is certainly better than grouping the world’s languages into three arbitrary and outdated groups.

Now where does Wikimedia come in? Wikimedia projects, the most popular of which is Wikipedia, are massively multilingual. That’s why the Wikimedia Foundation always took internationalization seriously and recently created a whole team dedicated to it–a team of which i am proud to be a member. One of the most important and urgent things that this team does is adding web fonts support to our websites, so that people wouldn’t see squares or question marks when they see a word in a language for which they don’t have a font on their computer.

The intention is to do it with orientation to languages and scripts, as described above. Even though a lot of people edit Wikipedia, it is still a website that is mostly read and not written by its visitors, so the fonts that will be used will be mostly decided by the programmers–that is, by our team–, but word processors are mostly used by people for writing, so they should combine language and script selection with manual font selection. Of course, providing good defaults would be a good idea.

Now all that’s left is for some LibreOffice developer to pick up the bug i opened about it and fix it, thus making LibreOffice far more friendly to the world than Microsoft Word is. After all, there are many more people who don’t speak English than those who do.

Three things made me write this post: The work of my team in Wikimedia on WebFonts and especially the work of Santhosh Thottingal; My Malayalam classes with Ophira Gamliel; and Lior Kaplan‘s and Caolán McNamara‘s questions about the font selection dialog in LibreOffice. Thank you, Santhosh, Ophira, Lior and Caolán for making me finally write this post, which i wanted to write for about fourteen years.


Palestinian geeks and RTL bugs

In the last few months i opened a bunch of MediaWiki bugs related to writing from right-to-left. If you click on the non-stricken-out numbers there, you’ll see my name at a few pages. Unfortunately i’m not yet much of a MediaWiki developer, but i’m quietly learning it at home.

This flood of right-to-left bugs was noticed. Mark Hershberger, Wikimedia’s bugmeister, wrote a blog post inviting developers who know RTL languages to fix the bugs. In the recent MediaWiki Hackathon 2011 in Berlin, which i attended as a member of the MediaWiki Language committee, i had the pleasure to meet Mark and many other MediaWiki developers in person – they taught me MediaWiki hacking tricks and i taught them the basics of RTL language handling in computers.

MediaWiki Hackathon 2011 participants, Berlin
MediaWiki Hackathon 2011 participants, Berlin. Photo: Tobias Schumann, CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE. Click to enlarge.

After the hackathon Mark’s blog post was made available for translation in, the software localization hub for MediaWiki, Wikipedia-related projects and other Free Software. It makes sense to translate it, especially to RTL languages. I translated it to Hebrew. It was also translated to Macedonian and Bulgarian; to Bosnian and two types of Serbian; to French, Danish and German; to Latin, Albanian, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese.

Do you notice any right-to-left languages except Hebrew here? No, me neither. After i poked a few people, parts of it were translated to Persian, Urdu and Khowar, a language of Pakistan. And not a single line of it was translated into Arabic yet.

And i just don’t get it. It is a fact that there are Arab Free Software hackers on both sides of Jordan, as well as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries. Judging by the tweets with the #palgeeks hashtag in Twitter, there are more startups in Ramallah than in Herzliya. There are Arab Wikipedia editors in Israel and the West Bank, not to mention the rest of the Arab world. There are a lot of translations of software messages into Arabic in the same website, But not of this blog post, which could bring more fixes to RTL bugs, which would in turn benefit all the people writing and reading in the Arabic alphabet – that’s hundreds of millions of people.

You could say: Why bother translating it from English into Arabic? After all, someone who has the skill to fix bugs in PHP code, probably knows English. But the fact is that translating it into Hebrew was worth the few minutes i put into it, because it caused the Israeli MediaWiki developer Rotem Liss to fix one RTL bug. (Thank you, Rotem.) Just think what it may do if it is translated to Arabic, which is spoken by many, many more people.

So, dear #palgeeks and Arabic-speaking geeks in other countries! If any of you are reading this, please invest a few minutes to do the following:

  1. Go to
  2. If you don’t have an account: Create one by clicking “ادخل / أنشئ حسابا” or “Log in / create account” at the top. Then follow the instructions on the screen to request Translator permission.
  3. Go to Mark Hershberger’s post translation page.
  4. Start translating into Arabic.
  5. Copy the result to your own blog, publish it on Twitter, invite other Arab hackers to fix RTL bugs in MediaWiki.

Oh, and you are also cordially invited to Wikimania in Haifa and to the Hackathon that will take place for two days before it, starting on the 2nd of August. It’s not about politics; it’s about improving Wikipedia’s support for your language. And you’ll also get to meet Wikipedians from all around the world, which is even more fun in real life than it sounds. Really. (If you need assistance with getting into Israel, please contact me privately.)

Arab Inventors in Wikipedia

The famous provocative Russian designer and blogger Artemy Lebedev wrote in his blog today (my translation from Russian):

European (Christian) consciousness is built differently than the Eastern (Muslim).

The main unique property of the European culture is the ability to invent and create new things, technologies, items and products. Arab peoples are absolutely unable to invent something. Do we know anything Arabic? A television? A telephone? A car? At least one thing? My main complaint towards Islam is this – as a culture it is so egotistic, that I feel suffocated there.

Though very provocative in his use of language and in his criticism against ugly design, Lebedev is usually very secularist and anti-nationalistic. Sometimes, though, he does make some shocking and scathing remarks about ethnic and religious groups, such as this one.

It did make me think, however. Everybody knows that in the Middle Ages Arabs made many important advances in literature, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and other fields, but i really couldn’t think of an Arab inventor from the recent centuries. So i went to Wikipedia, opened Category:Inventors and descended to Category:Inventors by nationality.

There was only one Arab country listed: United Arab Emirates. Other prominent Muslim countries were Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Hmm. So i went to the page List of inventors, hoping that it would be more inclusive and easy to search. It didn’t help much – i found very few Arabs there, and they were mostly medieval characters.

And then i recalled that it’s the English Wikipedia. So i went to Category:Inventors by nationality in the Arabic Wikipedia. There i found several sub-categories for Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt. There was no category for UAE, even though one existed in the English Wikipedia, and none of the categories i found in Arabic had an English counterpart; the one that existed for Algerian inventors was deleted a few months ago, because it was empty.

I went over the articles in these categories in the Arabic Wikipedia. Most of them didn’t have an English counterpart. There was an article in English about Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbah, a Lebanese engineer, so i created Category:Lebanese inventors for him and now there are two Arab countries under Category:Inventors by nationality in English.

There was also an article in English about Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian chemist, and a couple of other scientists. All of them are probably great people, but reading the articles about them in English it seemed to me that even though it’s correct to call them “scientists” and maybe “discoverers”, they probably aren’t inventors. Of course, it’s possible that i misunderstood something, but it may also mean that for the people who tagged these people as “inventors”, this word had a somewhat different meaning. This may or may not mean that the Arabic word used in the category name, مخترع, covers both inventions and discoveries. The Al-Mawrid Arabic-English dictionary, which i use most of the time, says that this word means “inventor, creator, originator, innovator, maker, author”.

So, there’s a little lesson in cultural divide to be learned here. No, i don’t agree with Artemy Lebedev – i am certain that Arabs can and do invent things and the existence of articles about alleged inventors from Arab countries in the Arabic Wikipedia probably means that this is true. But currently chauvinistic people can take a look in the English Wikipedia, see that it has almost no Arab inventors and keep being sure that Arabs are, indeed, stupid and incapable of invention. Since Wikipedia is so easily available, they probably won’t bother to search for information elsewhere.

Unfortunately, my understanding of the Arab culture and language is too small, but surely there must be an Arab who will take this challenge and improve the coverage of Arab inventors in the Wikipedia in English and other languages.

One way to do this would be to run the script that i wrote for finding and categorizing articles without interlanguage links; if you know Arabic and Perl, please contact me and i’ll gladly help you to set it up for the Arabic Wikipedia.

Unbearable Lightness

I was invited to the 10th anniversary celebration of the Catalan Wikipedia in Perpignan. Perpignan is a city in France, but from the Catalan point of view, it’s in Northern Catalonia – a rather large territory, also known as Roussillon, that was a part of Catalonia, but passed under French rule in 1659. Catalan is still spoken by many people there; how many exactly – i’ll have to see. I hope that it’s spoken by many people for a purely practical reason – my Catalan is much better than my French.

The Catalan Wikipedia is one of the first two Wikipedias created after the English one. The English Wikipedia was created on the 15th of January 2001; German and Catalan were created on the 16th of March 2001. Catalans love to tell that although their Wikipedia was created a few minutes after the German, it was the first one to have an actual article.

Since the Catalan Wikipedia is the oldest and the largest version of Wikipedia in a language which isn’t official in any big country (sorry, Andorra), the people behind it want to share their experiences promoting their language with other regional and minorized languages and this will be discussed in the event. More details on that later.

Direct El-Al flight from Tel-Aviv to Barcelona – 582 USD. Alitalia via Rome, 2 hours wait for connection – 460 USD. Czech Airlines (ČSA) via Prague, 11 hours wait for connection – 367 USD. Guess which one i picked. ČSA, of course – i pay less and i get to spend a day in Prague! Sorry, El-Al.

If you call Czech Airlines office in Tel-Aviv, you can choose one of the following languages, in that order: English, Russian, German, Czech, French, Spanish, Italian. No Hebrew or Arabic. Except that, however, the service is excellent. I spoke in Russian with the service people and they were very polite, helpful and efficient. They were Czech; They spoke Russian with a slight accent, but it was completely correct and easy to understand. I’ll have to wait for the flight itself to see how it is, but until now my impression is very good.

P.S. Typing the word “Czech” is surprisingly hard.

Water at Seven

A Muslim construction worker who is doing improvements in my neighbor’s apartment asked me to put two bottles of water in my fridge. “Until seven o’clock,” he said. “Now it’s Ramadan. Thank you.”

… But they say there is a war between us.


I helped an Arab student who does not know Hebrew well and who is not computer-savvy to find a book in the Mount Scopus library.

The book was in Arabic and she did not know how to search in Arabic in “Aleph“, the library’s search system. In the library computer it was possible to type in Arabic, but the letters were not printed on the keys, so i took out my laptop and opened the Arabic keyboard map. We sat together, and slowly typed the Arabic names (apparently the al- article shouldn’t be typed.). At the end we found the book.

That was yesterday. Today she brought me Baqlawa to the class.

… But they say there is a war between us.


In the library of the Hebrew University a religious Jewish student has a friendly and lively chat with an Arab student, in Arabic. They speak about memorial ceremonies for Israeli soldiers which are to be held tomorrow.

Don’t let anyone fool you: There is peace between Arabs and Jews.

Happy Independence day.


This semester i finally started studying two very important languages. No, not Armenian and Irish – i’m talking about Spanish and Arabic.

Spanish is in huge demand. In fact, i’m still not officially signed up for the course. It is given in five different groups, each with its own days and hours, there’s only one that fits me and technically it is full, but the teacher agreed to accept me. This group has sixty students and it is only one of five. I’ll have to go through some more bureaucratic hoops to get an official grade too.

Our Spanish teacher gave us homework for yesterday. I didn’t do it, of course. No-one was really sure whether to hand it in. At the end of the lesson one female student asked loudly: “Do we have to hand in the homework?”, to which i immediately replied: “Shhhhhh!” Then someone told me quietly: “You should forgive her, she is an atudait.”

If you are not Israeli, this requires an explanation. Atudai (עתודאי, f. -it, pl. -im) is someone who is allowed to complete an academic degree before he is drafted to IDF service. So it means that she a). is a geek and b). hasn’t been in the army yet and hence she doesn’t know what a “kit bag question” is. In IDF slang, a “kit bag question” is a question better not asked, because the reply can be positive. It originates at a very common story – the commander tells the unit to run and some stupid soldier asks – “With the kit bag or without the kit bag?” The reply is obvious. This story is very famous, but when i was at tironut (boot camp) someone actually asked this exact question.

Another Hebrew saying goes: “Suckers never die.”


Ya Mustafa!

Look: Arabic-Chinese calligraphy and more Arabic-Chinese calligraphy.

Arabic calligraphy is so much more interesting than Hebrew, or any other for that matter. To my taste, Japanese comes second and Chinese third.

There hardly is such a thing as Hebrew calligraphy – the script for hand-written Torah scrolls is the same all the time and all the other books are just printed and we are not really concerned with handwritten calligraphy, which is a pity.