THE MAN WHO LOVES ALPHABETS.

Today’s NY Times has an article by Michael Erard about Michael Everson, one of the co-authors of the Unicode Standard and apparently its most enthusiastic encoder of alphabets.

His mission has taken him to Kabul, Afghanistan, and Helsinki, Finland; to Beijing, Tokyo and Redmond, Wash. His Dublin house is a shrine to his obsession with every writing system that humans are known to have created—148 of which Mr. Everson says he can use for writing his name. In the hallway is an icon of the saints Cyril and Methodius (Cyril is often credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet) and a page from a Maghreb manuscript from North Africa….

For the last 10 years, Mr. Everson, who has American and Irish citizenship, has played a crucial role in developing Unicode, which might be viewed as the computer age’s Rosetta stone. Mr. Everson explains Unicode as “a big, giant font that is supposed to contain all the letters of all the alphabets of all the languages in the world.”
A more technical explanation of Unicode is this: When Mr. Everson sends e-mail in ogham, his computer isn’t sending ogham letters through the ether. Instead, strings of 0’s and 1’s are transmitted, and when they arrive on a friend’s computer, they generate on its screen the same ogham letters that Mr. Everson typed. Unicode is the master list that resides in both computers and translates individual letters and symbols into strings of 0’s and 1’s and back again. Most current software is Unicode-compliant, which means that this master list of all the world’s writing systems has been built into operating systems, browsers and software.
…Last month the latest version of the standard, Unicode Standard Version 4.0, was published. It contains encodings (that is, unique strings of 0’s and 1’s) for some 96,000 letters and symbols. Approximately 70,000 of them are Chinese characters. Unicode also contains support for 54 other writing systems, from Mongolian to Thai to Gothic to Cyrillic.
Mr. Everson said he had worked on about 5,000 of those characters. Version 4.0 includes characters for Linear B (for which he designed the font) and other ancient Mediterranean alphabets that are used mainly by scholars.
As vast as Version 4.0 seems, it is still not complete, and nearly 100 writing systems remain to be encoded. Mr. Everson is haunted by the prospect that Unicode may never be finished. “Imagine how you would feel if your name was François, but there was no ç available,” Mr. Everson said. “You would be irritated that your phone bill came addressed spelling your name wrong. Now imagine if your language used a totally different alphabet and you couldn’t use computers at all because of it. It’s a question of human rights, really.”
An incomplete Unicode is a looming possibility, however. Now that the writing systems of the major computer markets are encoded, the computer companies that once backed the Unicode project are beginning to question the expense. To ensure that the remaining writing systems are included, a project named the Script Encoding Initiative has been set up at the University of California at Berkeley to enlist scholars and apply for funds from private foundations to hire Mr. Everson full time.
One result of the dwindling interest from the private sector is to put pressure on Mr. Everson to complete large projects. “They say, ‘Here, Michael, can you do Egyptian?’ It’s like, no. Egyptian is on my list, Egyptian is hard, and it’s big.”
To pay the bills, Mr. Everson works as a typesetter. He is currently setting type for “Gargantua,” by Rabelais, in Irish. Other notable projects include the first publication of the entire New Testament in Cornish, as well as an English-Cornish dictionary.

The whole article is worth reading; Everson still has a soft spot for Tengwar and “is proud of working with the grandson of Osman Yusuf Kaynadid [my correction of the Times‘s “Kaynandid”; the name is more correctly spelled Keenadiid, as Everson renders it–LH], who invented the Osmanian script in Somalia in 1922.” Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to hang out with him and discuss obscure scripts.

Comments

  1. Um, Unicode can never be finished. We stupid bloody humans keep inventing new writing systems.

  2. I’m waiting for the Tangut. The Khitan, and Jurchen corpusses are probably too small to even be sure about the alphabet, but there’s tons of Tangut stuff.

  3. Some people are even trying to get Elvish included in Unicode…. Although they probably don’t have much of a chance. Klingon was already rejected..

  4. Everson is himself one of the people trying to get Elvish in Unicode (in Plane 1, where there is oodles of room) — he wrote the proposal for Tengwar and the Cirth. It’s not quite as farfetched as it seems; other constructed scripts, like Shavian, have already been added.
    And if the effort fails, there is an unofficial standard for the encoding of such: the ConScript Unicode Registry.

  5. Have you seen the Rosetta project? It’s part of the Long Now Foundation. Their idea is to collect all the world’s alphabets, translating the same passage into all the world’s languages, and putting it on an etched disk. (You can find it through the Long Now Foundation at http://www.longnow.org. The Rosetta pages seem to be down now. I’ll try again next week.) They’re on etched disks – not CDs, but readable as printed text. The plan is to store them all over the world. The writing starts at the outer edge of the disk, in letters big enough to read, then spirals inwards to the center, getting smaller and smaller. By the time it got near the center, you’d neeed an electron microscope to read it. But they figure that a future civilization will be able to do that. Or, in a worst-case scenario, will eventually get back up to the point where they can. I don’t remember what percent of the total they have, but it was quite large. The home page says “over 1200 languages”.

  6. Mike: I wrote about it here.

  7. I am the self-appointed keeper of the Caroline Island script, “the other indigenous script of the Pacific”. I have created and maintain a website devoted to this little-known script, and pls. visit at http://www.carolineislandscript.com.
    I would like to hear from folks interested in my work. Dan Koch

  8. I’m told my father’s side of the family are fom Italy and I would like to know what is the writing for my name stephanie or the letter for “s”.

  9. “Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to hang out with him and discuss obscure scripts.”
    If you like. 🙂

  10. Hey, fancy meeting you here! Next time you’re in New York, let me know. But I warn you, I’m a complete ignoramus about computer stuff.

  11. Zizka mentionned Tangut (or Xixia, but they call themselves Mi-nia), and I happen to have borrowed a book in tribute to specialist Ksenia Kepping, containing fascinating papers by her and a biographical outline (she grew up in Tianjin).
    Now, I just found the corresponding site (some parts don’t show properly, but you should be able to see at least the photo section).
    Anche il casino serve a qualcosa!

  12. The website of Ksenia Kepping has been moved:
    http://www.kepping.net

  13. will you send me a copy of Afghanistan’s alphabet from A to Z please!

  14. Osman A. Kenadid says:

    Michael Everson he did a good job, to brig alive for the lost Script like Osmania.
    And it’s not only Stephanie how likes to met him to discuss about script’s, we are all liked.
    Thank you michael.
    The grand son of the founder of Osmania Script.
    Osman osman.

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