Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia

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Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia
Richard W. Youatt
The American University of Armenia (AUA) serves as a two-way bridge between the Republic of Armenia and the Universities of the United States, as well as a focal point for regional seminars and conferences. Given the strong tradition in theoretical and applied computer science in Armenia, this makes AUA a natural test laboratory for new ideas and innovative projects. New ideas, such as Unicode implementations, can be evaluated and compared with indigenous methodologies in an environment that is at a very minimum trilingual (Russian, Armenian and English). New techniques can be applied to historic issues as well as to engrained patterns of human behavior.
In previous Unicode conferences, I have reported on the progress made in the area of character set standardization for Armenian and automated reversible English/Armenian transliteration, since these are instances of generic Unicode localization and internationalization issues that are not unique to the Republic of Armenia. In this report, I have chosen to focus on a specific software application at AUA: the development of a Web-based Digital Library of Classic Armenian Literature, and the possible extension of the character set and localization work into cuneiform. The Digital Library project is making available to worldwide audiences some of the enormous cultural wealth contained in the rich holdings of the Armenian national repository for historic documents and manuscripts the Matenadaran. Provisional displays may be viewed at www.digilib.am. Current efforts have some orientation to readers of Armenian, though work is also in progress to identify and establish formats that will make such work intelligible and accessible to wider audiences.
This work is based upon the earlier work on standardization and localization as reported in prior Unicode conferences, and a reconciliation of national Armenian 8-bit standards and ISO10646/Unicode encodings. For the benefit of new readers, I summarize that work with reference to the following tables. Table 1 is from the ISO9985 standard that precedes the ISO10646/Unicod work. It operates with a very simplistic set of assumptions about transliteration and character sets that have been rendered largely obsolescent by later developments. Table 2 is an unofficial table that illustrates the differences between the three major user groups of Armenian text processing systems: Western Armenian speakers, Eastern Armenian speakers, and non-Armenian scholars of Armenian. It highlights the over-simplifications of Table 1, which ignores significant historical and cultural issues. . A simple and practical advantage of Unicode is that a single 16 bit code point establishes a common point of reference for the three groups, and facilitates dialogue within the National Standards Body and with International organizations. Table 3 (an internal working document) shows some of the issues involved with introducing new methods and standards, both with regard to code points and with 1

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia

regard to transliteration and usage of non-letter characters. Table 4 (also an internal

working document) shows a proposed reconciliation of the existing 8-bit Armenian

National Standard and ISO10646/Unicode. While pedantic or trivial to an amateur eye, they are of significance in the professional computer science communities, where a single symbol can have a dramatic consequence, and function and usage diverge.

The primary benefit of that reconciliation is that such materials such as the Digital Library of Armenian Classical Literature can be viewed from a variety of different platforms, and that a consistent 8 bit and 16 bit encoding facilitates the creation and verification of the digitized materials. The “lesson learned” in software development is that projects of this type require cross-cultural international understanding and technical expertise that is based upon global (ISO) and national standards. The benefits of working in 16-bit mode (as opposed to 8-bit encodings for English and Armenian and Russian and Armenian ) are self-evident to those versed in Unicode theory and practice, but not to those unfamiliar with it. Unique code points eliminate ambiguity, software failures and incompatibilities, and World Wide Web access is simplified for those fortunate enough to operate in the 16-bit environment. The cost lies in conversion and harmonization. It is also necessary to point out that character set work does not solve all linguistic, orthographic and cultural issues.

Other projects at AUA (such as survey work in Russian, Armenian and English) that are beginning to use 16-bit tools are finding that those benefits are substantive and real, and I predict that such tools will gain increasing acceptance in the Republic of Armenia and the surrounding region.
My purpose in this paper is however not merely to report on work accomplished and in progress, but to analyze the more generic issues of localization in both an immediate and historical perspective. The most immediate observation is that Unicode based 16 bit tools provide a standard format and method for communication between people of different cultural backgrounds. This has a positive and stabilizing effect in that there is an implicit recognition of the equal validity of cultural backgrounds, at the same time as there are tools to facilitate local and international communication and cooperation. These concepts have validated themselves in such simple and practical areas as admissions files and application for GRE and GMAT tests as well as in the production of scientific publications.
At a broader cultural level (as shown in the signs and advertisements of the area), trilingual realities (with latent Unicode applications development potential) are 1

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia

widespread. A stroll in the streets of Armenia's capital city Yerevan gives some flavor of this: a sample street sign gives local town names in Armenian, Russian and English: Swissair is transliterated (phonetically) into Armenian, an insurance company displays its existence in Armenian, Arabic and Armenian. The National Olympic Committee announces itself in Armenian, Russian and English. These all testify to the eventual penetration of 16-bit tools and systems, since all of those organizations and others need to work in a trilingual environment. Modernization, globalization and Westernization are putting to the test prior localization work, as efforts on character set encodings and global usage pay off in the form of functional collating and sorting sequences.
These are however relatively simple issues when compared to those posed in the

analytical dimension. The worldwide literature search required for in depth analysis of the Digital Library holdings suggest that global Unicode based transliteration and data

recording conventions are likely to be of enduring value. The issue here is one of metadata that goes a step beyond a reversible bilingual transliteration algorithm.

For example, a linguist might want to define a culturally independent encoding for the morphemes represented in multiple scripts…as opposed to a method that reduces one language to the terms of reference of another. A short sample from the Annual of Armenian Linguistics together with a very simple word list that seeks to demonstrate

the linguistic affinities between Hurrian, Armenian and English demonstrate the inherent

difficulties inherent in the identification of phonemes, morphemes and graphemes in languages with differing scripts. 1

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia
These linguistic issues are significant in that they provide evidence to test rich hypotheses of global interest about the origins of the Indo-European languages and peoples, such as the exact relations between the Hittites, the Hurrians, the Urartians, the Sumerians, the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans. Such work could be facilitated by solid Unicode based tools and Computer Assisted Linguistics (CAL). Try and analyze the possible common morphemes of the preceding sample list of Hurrian, Armenian and English words for example, or try and develop Artificial Intelligence techniques for linguistic analysis in 8-bit mode. Try and collate the basic data from cross-cultural sources and then you will fully appreciate the benefits of 16 bit tools., and also the limitations.
In this section, I seek to provide an introduction to the humanities issues for the benefit of non-technical specialists. Firstly, I present a simple map that gives basic geographic features, and the location of some primary sites for cuneiform tablets. 1

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia

Secondly, I present a close-up of part of that map, which shows some of the peoples and areas where localized forms of cuneiform were used. 2

I was tempted to sub-title this presentation “Localization in 750 B.C.” since it is apparent that the cuneiform system faced comparable localization challenges to those of the contemporary world. Military and political conflicts were widespread, and separate kingdoms sought to establish their own orthographic and cultural systems….as is true today. The challenge to the authors of Digital Library systems is to bring together cultural artifacts of global interest despite those conflicts, and to Universities to make such materials available globally.

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia

A cuneiform monument in central Yerevan describes the founding of the city in 750 BC, and the Erebouni museum contains cuneiform inscriptions that are translated into Armenian, Russian and English. Erebouni was a major archaeological discovery that established the military and political presence of Urartu in that area. The historical localization problem revolves around distinguishing between the Urartian localization of cuneiform and those in Mesopotamia. Much of the expert opinion is in Russian.

Analysis of the roots of the words being digitized in the Digital Library of Armenian Classical Literature can sometimes be found in their cuneiform precursors, though precise semantic and etymological analysis is difficult…in part because of the presumed absence of ISO at the time and the proliferation of separate conventions, and in part because we are looking at many centuries of activity. A quick look at some synopses of the evolution of cuneiform illustrate some basic principles…notably the evolution of the symbols themselves from pictographic to "pure" cuneiform, the localization problems (i.e. the differences between Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.), and the additional problems of transcription and transliteration using the Latin characters. 1

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia2

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia
It seems that they also struggled with the problems of spreadsheet accounting, and pictographic representation. A classic tablet in the British Museum of about 3000 B.C. that seems to enter every book on cuneiform demonstrates such “spreadsheet principles”, as well as drawing attention to the problems of conventions in Assyriology and their ISO/Unicode representations. 1

Unicode and Localization at the American University of Armenia

Engaging in a little retroactive historical speculation, one can wonder how the “authors” of cuneiform might have struggled with Unicode Principles (see The Unicode Standard section 2.2 on the “Basic Design and of the Unicode Character Encoding” ) such as “The Unicode standard encodes characters in scripts which can be used for a number of different natural languages” and “the Unicode standard avoids duplication of characters by unifying them across languages, and the issue of glyph variants. A well known example (with reference to Sumerian and Akkadian) (see page from Louis Jean Calvet: Histoire de l”Ecriture”) illustrates the approach adopted by the scribes of cuneiform….a common symbol with a different verbal referent for both natural languages. How different is this from the problems of Han unification??

In conclusion, I commend those scribes of ancient and modern times who have sought to bridge the inevitable social and political gaps that exist between different social and political groupings, and who have brought solutions to localization issues. I commend the study of cuneiform to students of writing systems. 1

1 17th International Unicode Conference 1 San Jose, California, September 2000

1 17th International Unicode Conference 2 San Jose, California, September 2000

1 17th International Unicode Conference 3 San Jose, California, September 2000

1 17th International Unicode Conference 4 San Jose, California, September 2000

2 17th International Unicode Conference 5 San Jose, California, September 2000

1 17th International Unicode Conference 6 San Jose, California September, 2000

2 17th International Unicode Conference 9 San Jose, California September, 2000

1 17th International Unicode Conference 8 San Jose, California September, 2000

117th International Unicode Conference 9 San Jose, California September, 2000

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