Until recently, two Canadian Indigenous communities were limited in how they reproduced their languages on digital platforms. The problem: Some of the characters used to numerically represent the sounds of these languages (called syllabics) were ignored or rendered inaccurately when encoded in the Unicode standard, a set of codes that underlie digital text, guaranteeing that the characters look the same from one computer to another. programs.
A large swath of characters used to write the Dakelh (Carrier) language, spoken by the Dakelh community in British Columbia, were incorrectly represented, making them unreadable to the already small number of Dakelh speakers. Meanwhile, members of the Nattilingmiut Inuit community, who speak the Inuktut Nattilingmiutut dialect, were missing 12 of their 138 syllabic characters entirely.
These issues came to the fore in May 2020, when Kevin King, a Canadian researcher and font designer working with Dutch font foundry Typotheque, was tasked with creating a comprehensive set of fonts for the Unicode set representing these languages, alongside Ojibwa, Cree and Others. The effort and resulting fonts made Typotheque the winner of the Graphic Design category of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design awards.
Initially, King asked himself, “What is the respectful way to exchange knowledge with communities? he says. “Because if I come just to seek knowledge, it will often lead to closed doors, even if I have good intentions.”
His outreach efforts led him to Janet Tamilik McGrath, an Inuktut language consultant who had previously worked with local organizations and Nattilik elder and language guardian Nilaulaaq Aglukkaq to address the problem of missing syllabics.
“All the other syllabics that were ever designed for computers, they’re just created and then given to us. So there are spacing issues and other issues, and we used them anyway, but they don’t work very well,” McGrath said. . By the end of the years, Nilaulaaq had worked with Attima and Elizabeth Hadlari and another font foundry to create a custom font and keyboard for Natsilingmiutut speakers. But anyone who wanted to use it had to manually load it onto their computer, and it wasn’t supported on any machine without the font and keyboard installed.
King worked with McGrath and Nilaulaaq to reach people who could speak and write Natsilingmiutut; they wrote samples of the adapted syllabics which King incorporated into a proposal to the Unicode Consortium to add the missing characters. The proposal was quickly accepted, and the new characters were added to the Unicode Standard when it was updated in September 2021.
“Because our writing system is 100% phonetic, if it’s not written correctly, it can’t be spoken correctly,” says McGrath. “It’s a very bright day for [Natsilingmiutut] language transmission that there is a phonetic system consistent with the spoken language.
In a manner similar to his work with McGrath and Nilaulaaq, King also worked with guardian and Dakelh language teacher François “Guy” Prince and other members of the Dakelh community to submit proposed changes to the entire Carrier glyphs which were also accepted by the Unicode Consortium, which released them in September.
In addition to making the font workable, changes to the Carrier glyph set have allowed for accurate phonetic writing of the language, which Prince hopes will make it easier to learn and have fewer spelling discrepancies than the version that has was written using the Latin alphabet.
“We’re setting up a way for our language to be represented in perfect spelling and pronunciation format,” says Prince.
All changes to Unicode are supported by fonts published by Typotheque, although wider support for these changes ultimately depends on tech companies adjusting the fonts they preload on computers and phones. . But it’s the biggest step toward widespread digital support for previously inaccurate and missing syllabics since the initial encoding in 1999.
“The syllabic actually retains the spirit of the language,” says Prince, who is developing a program that incorporates the new syllabic glyphs. “I just feel bad that I didn’t do it sooner,” he says, “because I see people’s tattoos and there are actually mistakes in them.”
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