5.0337 Multilingual WP, OSs, characters, fonts (1/121)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 25 Sep 1991 20:36:15 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0337. Wednesday, 25 Sep 1991.
Multilingual WP

Date: Sun, 22 Sep 91 18:35:18 CDT
From: Richard Goerwitz <goer@sophist.uchicago.edu>
Subject: Re: 5.0334 Rs: Multilingual

Larry Hurtado makes some statements about multilingual computing with
which I strongly disagree (here I pretend that such issues are of
earth-shaking proportions :-)).

Regarding multi-lingual wordprocessing, I'm not so glum as a
recent posting from "Richard". Let's move from the global to the
specif. What do you want? English & european languages, plus
Greek & Hebrew for example? Well, to cite only one package for
DOS machines (I use a Toshiba T1600), Word Perfect 5.1 obviously
gives English, plus in its extended character sets virtually all
characters for other european languages which can be installed in
optional keyboards you can create, fairly simply.

Why do I disagree with these assertions (and the others he makes)?
Basically because it reduces the problem of the multilingual display
to the problem of fonts. My quarrel with the PC is over its entire
approach to text display. It's a crusty old remnant of bygone days,
and really doesn't belong in a modern system. While I can't dis-
agree with LH over the fact that it can be made to work, I think it
would be wise to think of the PC (and DOS in general) as a dead end
road which that still has a few blocks left, but which ultimatly will
not get you anywhere you want to be.

First of all, the PC system is ROM based. That is, characters are
essentially hard-coded into the video card, and you don't get any
control over their pitch, font, or anything else. You can obtain an
EGA or VGA (or even a Herc Plus), and this will let you load in some
fonts. Still, you're stuck with whatever you've loaded in - the
pitch, font, etc. And the kerning relationships can't be altered (or
even specified in the first place). What's worse, you can't even
display diacritics or do overstrikes. This is a positively antiquated
way of doing things. A user should be able to utilize any font of any
size he or she wants, and use it any time it seems useful to do so.
The Mac allows you to do this. NeXT, too. Any real interface for the
90s ought to. Windows will help with some of these problems. It's
not a good, basic solution to the problem, though. A Mac is a good,
basic solution to the problem :-).

Fonts, kerning relationships, overstrike, and what not aren't the only
issue, though. There is also the problem of wordwrap, ligatures, and
other problems inherent in the display of things like Chinese, Arabic,
etc. Do you really want to have to enter your Hebrew or Arabic in
"backwards"? And remember, if I get to the end of a line in English,
and then want to write in a right-left script, the words will do a
most peculiar thing. Essentially, word1 of the sequence will end up
on the right top, while the last word will end up on the left: 1drow
3drow 2drow. People operating in these languages, as well as English,
will have a major headache if they don't have a machine with a good
interface. The reason is that every time they rewrite a paragraph,
the software (unless it's been heavily, heavily reworked) will wrap
the wrong way. I.e. above we'd get 1drow 3drow 2drow, instead of the
correct sequence: 3drow 2drow 1drow.

Can you imagine doing multilingual work with these kinds of headaches?

One good thing about the NeXT is that its object-oriented design lets
you create text objects which know about all the niceties of multi-
lingual display. This is, in fact, what they are working for at NeXT,
and the architecture of their platform will make success easier there
than for other platforms. Its object-oriented organization will also
make their solution more portable, and more easily integratable into
a broad range of applications.

Even if we get DOS software that knows about all the different scripts,
and can handle all the necessary fonts, ligatures, alternate character
forms, and overstrikes, then we still run into the biggest problem of
them all: Portability. If you have an interface that does indeed know
how to handle various languages, knows how they wrap, etc., then a
great burden suddenly shifts off of the application program itself,
and onto the system software that underlies the applications. What
this means is that you could share files much more easily, and shift
and move text around from package to package, without having to worry
so much about whether each one will understand the format and be able
to display/manipulate it. On a system which lacks such an
internationalized script display interface, every program would be an
island unto itself. A kludge.

I hope I'm making myself clear to people who are designing the systems
of today and tomorrow. The problem isn't just one of "fonts." That's
the typical American engineer's viewpoint on a problem that actually
possesses a far wider scope. A modern operating system simply cannot
freeze a limited number of characters into very limited video ROM/RAM.
It should allow us to specify our own fonts (as many as core memory
and disk can hold), and let us scale and kern them as we please. It
should also know about wordwrap, ligatures, and have the capacity to
overstrike. And it should do this on a level which takes most of the
burdens off of the applications programs (for portability's sake).

Surely, you can get by with an operating system that doesn't do these
things. My point is that you shouldn't have to. The Mac already has
many of these features, and so does the NeXT. Most of the X-based
display tools have made a start. The PC is really more in a class with
the old, klunky toy computers of the late 70s and early 80s. It's an
operating system that's gone on well beyond its time, and humanists who
make pretenses of multilingual work really shouldn't pour too much of
their precious (and usually skimpy) resources into it. Like a notice
in the CS department at the U of Chicago says -

MS-DOS: Just say "no."

Incidentally, I am not sending everyone off to Apple (as if people are
hanging on my every word, anyway :-)). Apple is a nasty, litigious
firm. And as the CS students here say, the Mac is "user friendly;
programmer hostile." There will never be as much cheap, good software
for the Mac as there is for those blasted old PCs. The NeXT is a nice
machine. It's great for development. DOS emulators are available for
it, and also (I understand) Mac emulators. You can get WordPerfect
for it, and also Lotus Improv (or whatever it's called). Still, it's
relatively new, and I can't legitimately recommend diving into one
without checking it out to be *absolutely sure* it has what you want.
There are also many questions about how NeXT is about the mechanics of
delivery and service. This I don't know about firsthand.

There are no easy answers right now. But if anyone is considering a
major investment at this point, I'd definitely say "wait." Wait for
the NeXT. See if a Mac will suit your needs (and isn't too expensive;
they have a terrible price/performance ratio, unless you can get
substantial academic discounts, and even then...). The PC should be
last on the list, unless you like driving antiques :-).