How the world of fonts is making room for Indian languages

May 2nd, 2019 by Peter Bilak likes to think of fonts as the voice of the text. They convey emotions and tone, just like voices—and just like voices, there are some fonts that are inherently better at communicating a message. Bilak knows this universe of fonts, with their adjunct emotions, intimately. In 2009, the Slovakian typeface designer had co-founded Indian Type Foundry, the first company in the country dedicated to designing and distributing fonts. A decade on, the Ahmedabad-based company has many distinctions to its name: it developed the first-of-its-kind modern Devanagari font (Fedra Hindi) and spearheaded efforts to create a humanist typeface that supports all Indian languages (Kohinoor) as well as a sans serif font covering 12 Indian languages (Akhand). Its rise did not happen in a vacuum, though. Over the last decade or so, dozens of type designers and collectives have been concertedly addressing a deep disparity—the dearth of fonts for Indian languages. To them, it’s important that in a nation as varied as India, there should be fonts to reflect the linguistic diversity. “We don’t realise (this) but (on everything from) bank forms to film titles, only English was being used because of the lack of suitable fonts in Indic languages,” said Shiva Nallaperumal, a partner at November, a Mumbai-based graphic design studio. Deep complexities The origin of type design in Indic languages goes back to the history of print in India. Girish Dalvi, co-founder of Ek Type Collective and professor of design at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, says the earliest type foundry was Nirnay Sagar Press. Established in Bombay in the year 1834, the publisher of Sanskrit texts produced “hand lettering in Gujarati and Devanagari.” Innovations like those continued for a century and a half, but the production of modern Indic fonts began in earnest only after the proliferation of computers—and, more specifically, the internet. A turning point came with the introduction of Unicode. A computing industry standard, Unicode attaches a unique number to every written character—no matter what language or platform—making it possible for the first time to create a font in an Indian language that could be used and seen across platforms. Of course, fonts could be, and were, developed before, but they were system-specific: if you sent a text in an earlier Indic font, the receiver could see it only if the receiving system supported that type. Those pre-Unicode fonts are today called Legacy Fonts. “They were very basic and not conducive to design intervention,” said Nallaperumal. “The maatras were a bit off and you had to create 1,000 versions to make Devanagari work. Most software was created with Latin type design in mind and could not support complex Indian languages.” The complexity of writing systems in India still poses a challenge for designers. Every major language has its own structure and aesthetic that rarely translates into another language—a sharp contrast from the Latin script. “The structure of the Latin script is pretty straightforward and linear for the most part, where one letter follows the other, with an occasional diacritical accent mark thrown in,” explained Kalapi Gajjar-Bordawekar, type designer and co-founder of the studio Universal Thirst. “But in the case of most Indic scripts, letter shapes transform based on context.” Read more:

400 Indian Languages Face the Threat of Extinction: Study

August 7th, 2017 by Almost 10 percent of the world’s 4,000 languages that face the threat of extinction are spoken in India. Linguist Ganesh N Devy says that while English posed no real threat to major Indian languages, the most threatened languages are the ones spoken in the coastal areas of the country. Devy, chairman, People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) told PTI: "Many languages are on the verge of disappearance and most of them are the coastal languages. The reason is that livelihood in coastal areas is no longer safe. The corporate world is doing deep sea fishing. Traditional fishing communities, on the other hand, have moved inwards... away from the coast, thus giving up their languages." Some tribal languages have also shown growth in recent years, said Devy, who was in New Delhi for the release of 11 volumes of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), claimed to be the world's largest linguistic survey. For the study, all 780 Indian languages were surveyed by a team of 3,000 people in 27 states. Devy, also the founder-director of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center, Vadodara and Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, said the study will cover the remaining states of Sikkim, Goa and Andaman and Nicobar islands by December. "I conceived the idea of the survey in 2003 and began the fieldwork in 2010 with a team of 3,000 people. The data collection was completed in 2013 and since then, the publication process was started," he said. The literary expert said while the danger of extinction looms large over some languages, many other languages have been thriving. Read more: The Quint

India’s Endangered Languages Need to Be Digitally Documented

June 8th, 2017 by Every two weeks, a language dies and with it, a wealth of knowledge forever. In India alone, there exist more than 780 languages. The rate at which languages are dying here is extremely high as over 220 languages have died in the last 50 years. In India, 197 languages are categorised as endangered. These are further divided into four subcategories – vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered – by the UNESCO. Out of these 197 language, only two languages – Boro and Meithei – have official status in India while many others do not even have a writing system. When one takes into account the fact that 7.8 million Indians are visually impaired, there is a drastic need to use digital tools to preserve and grow India’s endangered languages. While there has been some effort to do the same for the 22 recognised official languages of India, the remaining languages have not received any focus. The recent death of a language like Eyak confirms that more often than not, a language dies with the death of the older members of a tribe. The endangered languages – which mark 96% of the total number of languages in the country – and indigenous languages of India largely lack accessibility tools. In fact, accessibility tools for most Indian languages are not affordable and are proprietary in nature. Read more: The Wire

Regional-Language Films Power Indian Entertainment Industry’s Growth

May 18th, 2017 by A staggering 1,907 films in 41 languages were certified in India in the 2015-16 timeframe. The Hindi-language industry led the way with 340 films, followed by Tamil with 291, Telugu (275), Kannada (204), Marathi (181) and Malayalam (168). The Indian film industry grew overall by 3% in the financial year 2016-17, but domestic theatrical declined from $1.6 billion in the previous year to $1.5 billion, according to the annual KPMG industry report. This is due to the continuing underperformance of Bollywood, which contributed just $575 million. The growth is largely powered by the regional industries led by Telugu- and Tamil-language productions, followed by the Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi and Gujarati languages.A telling indicator of the strength of regional cinema is April 28 release “Baahubali: The Conclusion,” the sequel to 2015’s “Baahubali: The Beginning” that collected $100 million worldwide. The Telugu-language film was also released in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi versions and grossed a mighty $81 million in its opening weekend, including $10.1 million in North America where it bowed in third place at the box office. “What regional cinema does really well is to tell stories rooted in its culture and is aimed at a specific audience,” says the mono-monikered Vetrimaaran. “In my opinion, this rootedness helps regional cinema travel globally. Hindi cinema, in trying to cater to multicultural audiences across India, loses that and sometimes becomes confused and generic.” Read more: Variety

India is on the verge of losing about 300 Languages out of 800

July 11th, 2016 by Language forms an integral part of one’s culture. India has the distinction of accommodating 800 languages and dialects across the country, according to a research conducted by Bhasha Research Centre. Bhasha Research Centre is an NGO founded under the leadership of Dr G.N. Devy, winner of Sahitya Academy Award. The report of the survey was published on 5th September on the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr S. Radhakrishnan. The report consists of 35000 pages and was published in 5 volumes. The survey began in 2010 and lasted for 4 years. The research was done by many known historians and research scholars. The report suggested that around 300 languages have been extinct till now. And 150 more languages will extinct in the coming half century. A linguistic scholar George Grierson founded that there were 364 languages between 1894 to 1928. The UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation is also counting the same, in which they found that 197 languages in India are endangered while 42 languages came under the category of critically endangered. Nihali, a language from pre-Aryan and pre- Munda reign, was also included in the list. Read more: NewsGram

The death of Urdu in India is greatly exaggerated – the language is actually thriving

June 2nd, 2016 by An Indian currency note is a wonder of linguistic diversity. Take a Rs 100 note, for example. The amount “rupees one hundred” is written in a staggering 17 scripts. Most of the scripts represent different sounds: in Bengali, it reads “eksho taka” and in Marathi “shambhar rupye”. Yet, oddly enough, two of those 17 scripts read out the same way : “ek sau rupye”. The two are, of course, Hindi and Urdu. On May 19, a few Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers forced an artist to deface his own graffiti in praise of the capital. What ticked those people off was that the sher, or couplet, was in Urdu which was not to be “tolerated”. For good measure, the artist was even asked to go back to Lahore. The fact that the name “Urdu” ­– meaning royal camp or city – refers to Delhi, where the language originated, was only the tip of the irony iceberg. The incident was also followed with the almost by now de rigueur lamentations about the death of Urdu by well-meaning if misinformed people. Here’s a thought experiment, though. If the very same couplet - Dilli tera ujarna, aur phir ujar ke basna. Woh dil hai toone paya, sani nahi hai jiska – had been written down in the Devanagri or Roman script would the RSS gundas have gotten so worked up? And if millions of people, many of them Bengalis, Kannadigas or Marathis, go around India saying “ek sau rupye” ­– which we know to be Urdu from our currency notes – how is the language then dying? Read more:

Indian film-makers try to save vanishing language from extinction

May 31st, 2016 by VK Neelarao blows the dust off a DVD before putting it in his television’s disc reader. The title song of his latest film plays from the rooftop of his home in Jai Hindpuram, in the southern Indian city of Madurai. “I sang this song myself,” he says. “And the hero of the film is my son.” Neelarao, a retired silk-weaver and magazine editor, is one of the last guardians of the fast-vanishing Saurashtrian language, a mostly oral Indo-Aryan tongue. “Around 80% of the language has been forgotten already,” he says. “My grandchildren don’t understand me when I speak Saurashtrian. My family, everyone around me speaks Tamil,” he adds, referring to the dominant language of Madurai. “I fear that soon they will turn me into a Tamilian.” In an attempt to save the language, Neelarao and others are capturing it on camera in films that are generally homemade and self-financed. Last year his work Hedde Jomai made waves after screening in several cities. In the next few months his latest film will be shown in cinemas around the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Over the opening credits at an early screening, Neelarao explains how his idea came about. “I didn’t make this film to become famous,” he says. “Our language is nearing extinction. It is my mother tongue. I can’t give you a reason why I love it.” Read more: The Guardian‎

Regional languages are the lynchpin to India’s Internet boom

December 8th, 2015 by India is expected to see an unprecedented boom in the number of Internet users over the next few years but for a host of Internet companies it means a wholesale change in the language in which they engage with their potential new consumers. According to a November report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), India is expected to have the second largest Internet user base in the world by the middle of next year with about 460 million users. The numbers have grown by 49 per cent over the past year and about three-quarter of these new users are accessing the net through mobile phones. Behind these numbers though, is a more interesting trend, namely that the Indian Internet consumer is now a very different individual than he or she was a few years ago. Read more: The Hindu‎

Teaching the Lakota language to the Lakota

December 1st, 2015 by PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — Dodge tumbleweeds and stray dogs. Venture down a deeply rutted dirt road. Walk into the warmth of a home heated by a wood-burning stove. There'll be a deer roast marinating on the kitchen counter. It is here, in a snug home that sits on the edge of nearly 3 million acres of South Dakota prairie, that you'll find the heart of a culture. It's here, at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Joe Giago and Randi Boucher Giago make dinner for their two young daughters. The smaller one squirms and is gently admonished: "Ayustan," she is told — leave it alone. It's here where the Lakota language is spoken, taught and absorbed in day-to-day life. That makes the Giago home a rare find. According to the UCLA Language Materials Project, only 6,000 fluent speakers of the Lakota language remain in the world, and few of those are under the age of 65. Of the nearly 30,000 people who live on Pine Ridge, between 5 and 10 percent speak Lakota. For the past four decades, the race to save the language has started and stuttered, taken on by well-meaning individuals and organizations whose efforts were often snuffed out by lack of funding, community support or organizational issues. Read more: Al Jazeera America‎

Translating for National Geographic

November 20th, 2015 by SARATOGA SPRINGS – Jesse Bruchac, Native American author and Abenaki language teacher, has just finished one of his biggest projects yet. Bruchac, who lives in Greenfield Center and grew up in Saratoga, was asked by National Geographic to be the translator for their new two-part special, “Saints and Strangers.” “Saints and Strangers” tells the story of the pilgrims on the Mayflower, and follows their first year settling in America, as well as their interactions with the native people. National Geographic, wanting this show to be as realistic as possible, included the Eastern Algonquian language Western Abenaki, a language similar to what the pilgrims might’ve heard spoken by the Native Americans. Today, only about a dozen people speak Western Abenaki in the world, making Bruchac’s contribution to the show that much more remarkable. Though Bruchac is very busy with the premiere of “Saints and Strangers,” he took some time to answer questions about his latest venture and share what his experience was like. “Saints and Strangers” premieres on Sunday, November 22 at 9 p.m. and concludes on Monday, November 23 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic. Read more: Saratoga Today

Tamil, Bangla, Marathi and Dogri in focus at IHC languages festival

September 15th, 2015 by NEW DELHI: Edition five of the IHC Indian Language Festival 'Samanvay' will begin here in November with a unique dialogue of the country's languages with a focus on Tamil, Bangla, Marathi and Dogri. The four-day festival scheduled to begin November 26 features a line up that includes Booker nominated author Jeet Thayil, feminist Urvashi Butalia, professor Ayesha Kidwai, art critic Sadanand Menon, cartoonist E P Unny, translator Arunava Sinha, poet Sachin Ketkar and historian A R Venk .. Read more: The Economic Times

How Sanskrit came to be considered the most suitable language for computer software

August 27th, 2015 by About Sanskrit in contemporary India, there are two things of note. The first is typified by what I found in the Hindustan Timesa few days ago. When a mobile app firm observed August 15 by asking people to tweet with the hashtag #IndianAndProud, many Indians responded. A selection of their 140-or-less character epigrams covered three full pages in the paper on August 19. One repeated an assertion that’s been made so often it’s no longer even questioned: that “Sanskrit is considered the most suitable language for computer software”. The way I’ve often seen it, that statement is usually prefixed by the words “A report in Forbes magazine in 1987 said that…”. Perhaps in this case the Twitter character limit forced their omission. But this attribution to Forbes has been made so often, it is no longer even questioned. Though if it was, we’d find that no such report was ever in Forbes, whether in 1987 or any other time. So why do so many people appear to believe it? Or what does it even mean? Or where did this shibboleth come from in the first place? Read More: