In an age of digital plenty, shouldn’t it be possible for every script to have a place at the table?
Glenn Fleishman writes for Increment, on this edition about Internationalisation, about the struggle to keep up with scripts, glyphs and culturally-specific communication aspects in our digital age. It’s a very long article, which I highly recommend you save for a long, rainy day, but here’s some food for thought from it. Glenn sets the premise right from the start:
Imagine being unable to write on paper in your native tongue. How frustrating would that be—and what alternatives would you have? You may, perhaps in reluctance or anger, use the letters or shapes of another language.
Of the around 7000 languages around today, about 4000 have a written form (even if the written form came after the language had been well established orally). Most people on the planet today would find it ridiculous not to be able to write a book with pen and paper.
But when it comes to digital interaction, not all languages are re-created equal. Some letters, logograms, flowing shapes, or other components used by a single language or shared by several—collectively known as a script—lack representation in typefaces appropriate for digital display
If your native language isn’t using the Latin alphabet, then you probably went through a similar pain already: interacting in your language with some forms of software sometimes proves to be an impossible task. Glenn is quick to point out that this exclusion isn’t necessarily done on purpose. It’s often a commercial, financially-sensible decision:
No standards body or company made an intentional decision to exclude particular languages. The focus on font-making, however, veers towards what’s commercially necessary—what’s used by millions or billions—whether for an operating system like those from Microsoft or Apple, or for an independent digital typeface foundry. This results in a linguistic hegemony that’s picked winners and losers among languages and scripts.
Emoji support is now better established than several scripts necessary for more than 2 billion people to write on a digital medium. Why is this?
And of course, it’s impossible to have a conversation about this without mentioning Unicode:
Unicode is a master list of every symbol necessary for every script, academic discipline, and beyond (see: emoji), assembled and continuously expanded by the Unicode Consortium. Unicode’s inventory is now at 140,000.
It also includes missing characters from languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; and making room for the more obscure dead languages—not just, say, Latin or Ancient Greek—used by scholars and historians.
However, Unicode is only part of the solution. Unicode defines a numbered location for what a character represents and a kind of schematic of what it should look like. It’s still up to typeface designers to recreate those digital versions of characters, so they can be used and displayed worldwide with proper support.
Glenn does a remarkable job at condensing the history of Unicode, and even explaining UTF-8, as to what it takes to properly display a script everywhere, which I’ll leave for you to review. He also makes an interesting case for the good fortune of Gutenberg and his movable type: hadn’t it been for a very small Latin script, his process would have likely never even have started or gone anywhere. Movable type with Chinese glyphs: unlikely at the time.
Type designer Matthew Carter—of Georgia, Bell Centennial, and other iconic faces across more than six decades—told me in 2010, “I can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Screw the letter B.’” He noted that “what we work with had its form essentially frozen way before there was even typography.”
So regarding a universal typeface: can we have the cake and eat it too? You may have heard about Google’s Noto typeface
, a long, universal project which aims to support all languages and scripts in display. From Armenian to Arabic, through Avestan and Pahlavi, the project is ambitious. But it also serves as a lesson on cost and resources:
At the first production release of Noto in 2016, which covered all characters to Unicode 6.1, a Noto product manager told me that, as engineers, he and others didn’t fully understand the complexity of what they had signed up for. But they soon learned. And, given the time, work, and people power already expended, the project has easily cost many millions of dollars so far.
Believe it or not, I just barely scratched the surface trying to summarise this incredible Increment article, so be sure to save it for more content.