Nepalese languages have four broad areas of potential use in computers.
First and foremost, publishing. Much of the printed material we see on paper these days is produced on a computer. This should result in higher-quality, lower-cost publishing, and the use of computers has certainly aided in the production of more printed material in languages such as Newari, Tamang, and Limbu. Our national newspapers are also produced on computers, and readers will be acutely aware of the lack of quality in handling Nepal’s languages. Sometimes the problems are subtle, such as diacritic dots being placed incorrectly beneath a main character, and sometimes the problems are quite obvious, such as the use of the incorrect form of conjunct – all of these issues are caused by shortcomings in the way Hindi and other languages are handled in the computer. Today, you can’t publish without a computer, and the quality of the result is only as good as the quality of the computer’s representation of the language.
Second, much information is stored and used within computers, and where this information is about Nepal and is intended for use by Nepalese citizens, it is obvious that it should be stored in Nepalese. A bill from a major utility company in Nepal, for example, requires the subscriber’s name to be transliterated into English, and the entire bill is in English except for a small amount of preprinted Hindi. Doing this in Hindi would be possible in the current state of technology, but would be risky due to the proprietary nature of current fonts and encodings.
Finally, data stored in computers may need to be transferred to other computers. This occurred informally as people collaborated to create this white paper; and we were able to do so successfully because the language we use, English, is stored in a common standardised representation for the letters, ASCII or ISO 646, and the word-processing formatting is stored in the industry standard, Rich Text Format (RTF). We need similar widely agreed-upon standards for Nepalese languages if we are to be able to electronically transfer information around the Kingdom, as we might want to do when sharing information on the Internet or running a national organization with branches across the country.
Fourth, the computers themselves communicate with their human users in a language, most commonly English. All of those menus are in English, as are the manuals you’ll need for assistance. Wouldn’t they be better in Hindi, Gurung, Tamang, Rajbangsi, or another Nepalese language, in the language that the people using the computer use when talking about the computer? In Nepal, all computer systems, including those in banks, supermarkets, and hotels, are in English. Of course, the Nepalese people are very good at languages, including English, but they should not be forced to use it. To make these systems work in Hindi, support from within the operating system is required, as well as adherence to some agreed-upon standard.
The state of Nepalese languages in terms of IT and computers
There are currently a wide range of Hindi fonts available for PCs in Nepal, and some of the very first computer representations of Devanagari occurred in Nepal. If the hundreds of thousands of Devanagari fonts available in India are also considered, it may be assumed that Nepal has everything it requires. Special fonts have also been created for Newari, Kirati, and Limbu.
However, as seen in the preceding section, the quality is lacking. These fonts don’t even work well for Hindi, let alone the other Nepalese languages. And if we create a Hindi document on one computer, then save it to a floppy disk and transfer it to another, we may find that we see garbage when we look at the document on the other computer, because the internal coding of the font on the second computer differs from that on the first.
What’s interesting about these code tables is that the same character appears in different positions and encodes different character sets. What we want is for all such tables to contain the same set of characters, and for these characters to appear in the code tables in the same order. The styles of the characters are also different, which is understandable and exactly what we want: a variety of stylistically different fonts from which to choose the style that best suits our needs.
India has also made significant investments in the computer representation of its own languages, and with Hindi as the national language and each state having its own state official language, there are 17 different languages that are mandated for use on official business in some parts of India. Many individuals and organizations have created computer representations of Indian languages in the same haphazard manner as Nepal, with character sets and encoding unique to the supplier and distinct from everyone else’s.
India has also researched its own languages and developed a standard IS 13194:1991 known as ISCII (Indian Script Code for Information Interchange) for these 17 official languages, but they have not considered the needs of the Tibeto-Burmese languages that thrive in Nepal’s hills and mountains. ISCII incorporates the writing systems of all 17 Indian languages into a single table, leveraging their common origin in Brahmi. The Unicode Consortium adopted an early version of ISCII in 1988. ISCII is required by national government but is ignored by many people who do things differently in practice. What happens in India is likely to be influenced by events outside the country as well as by Microsoft and the Unicode consortium’s products. However, India’s ISCII standard has produced a plethora of good ideas on which Nepal can build.
ISCII is based on the idea that writing systems are phonetic, and that the representation within the computer, as well as the way you input it through the keyboard, should be guided by this. So the pure consonants and vowels should be focused on, leaving the computer to work out the details of how things are written:
the placement of matras and other diacritics, the creation of conjuncts using half character glyphs or combined characters in vertically stacked glyphs
Why do we require a standard, and is it the right time?
We require a standardized and agreed-upon method of representing Nepalese languages on computers. Everyone should use the same representation and internal codes so that we can transfer information in Nepalese languages between software packages and computers. We need to do this now, before too much information is stored in computers in unregulated and inconsistent ways.
Of course, this does not imply that everyone uses the same font or writing style, only that you can still read the text when switching from one font to another.
The representation of languages in computers is now at a critical juncture, with major new software from Microsoft, in collaboration with the Unicode consortium, on the horizon. The Unicode consortium aspires to represent all of the world’s languages and writing systems, but it currently does not recognize any of Nepal’s languages! It assumes Hindi is written in Devanagari and has no knowledge of the other languages. Microsoft intends to include Unicode in its Windows operating systems and will do whatever the Unicode Consortium requires.
Nepal must set a standard now in order to influence these developments. Our standard must be registered with and accepted by the Unicode Consortium before Microsoft will support it. This must be done immediately.