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.