UNESCO-designated International Mother Language Day 2006 Theme: Languages and Cyberspace

(February 2006) The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is “Languages and Cyberspace.” Lack of access to computer technology hinders some minority language groups from communicating with the global community. Speakers of unwritten languages—as well as those with scripts not yet available on computers—also have limited worldwide connections. SIL researches and develops computer software solutions needed to facilitate the study of languages and the publication of literature in a variety of writing systems.

The earliest computer applications used the Roman alphabet with a predictable left-to-right reading pattern. Later, computer software was developed to handle right-to-left scripts. Implementing top-to-bottom scripts is an ongoing goal for the future. An additional technological challenge is to develop scripts for other languages that are derived from the major script families but require additional characters not yet implemented on computers.

To help solve the display problems of complex scripts, SIL developed a technology called Graphite. For example, if a script has a single consonant with four distinct forms, Graphite instructs the computer to select and display each form in its proper context. In some scripts, vowels may need to be alternately inserted atop or below the consonant, or several accent marks or other diacritics may need to be stacked above a character. Graphite handles these and other complex rules and orderings automatically.

SIL shares its linguistic expertise and knowledge of script behaviors with the Unicode Consortium, with the goal that the Unicode Standard will eventually support all of the world’s writing systems. Through ongoing dialogue and partnerships with computer industry leaders, SIL encourages an inclusive multilingual global information society. With a shared desire to preserve the world’s linguistic heritage, SIL partnered with UNESCO to formulate and promote policy that will help guide the production of complex scripts. One of the results was a multilingual web browser that allows for the viewing of complex and non-Roman scripts for free download from the SIL website.

The SIL Open Font License (OFL) is another example of SIL's efforts to make more widely available its expertise in writing systems. The OFL is a free and open source license which provides a legal framework for worldwide collaborative development, sharing and improvement of fonts and related software. Font authors can now release their work under a common license that allows wider use, bundling, modification and redistribution. It is not limited to any specific computing platform or environment, and can be used by other organizations or individuals.

The OFL applies SIL’s many years of experience in font design and linguistic software engineering to the difficult area of font licensing. The licensing model has been reviewed and refined with the help of experts in the FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) community.

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