Dual-script Sinhala or Unicode Sinhala

JC Ahangama

Mr. Janaka Yagirala's article "Language, Education and Software" is very illuminating about the IT situation in the island and the world. The launch of version 3 of the Firefox and along with it a Beta version that localized Sinhala is very good news.

Localizing is providing computer terms in Sinhala and making local conventions of writing dates and time etc. available in the computer. This project is not finished yet and is in progressing well. The good that localizing brings is the means to get over the notion that English is a prerequisite for using the computer. I have seen people (Buddhist monks!) with a smattering of English laughing at others who are even weaker in English when they tried to use the computer.

There is another version of Sinhala supported by Firefox. That is Dual-script (DS) Sinhala. Dual script Sinhala has a different appeal than Unicode Sinhala. It is fully Unicode compliant as; otherwise, Firefox would not support it. In fact, had Firefox been fully compliant of the Unicode standard, DS Sinhala would not need people like, in particular a programmer from Israel and some fair minded people around the world and me to fight for it, as it would be automatically supported. It was a special consideration that they gave DS Sinhala by uncovering and (partly) removing unreasonable restrictions applied on the Latin script due to false ideas some programmers hold about font rendering. Dual-script means it functions both as a language using the Sinhala script as well as the Latin script.

The localized version of Firefox is not a requirement for DS Sinhala. DS Sinhala functions entirely in the Single-byte Character Space (SBCS) which is occupied by the Western European languages listed by Mr. Yagirala. There are precisely 14 languages that base their alphabets in this Single-byte Unicode character space. Interestingly, these languages do not need special localizing software because their local needs are already available in the computer by the sheer fact that they occupy the SBCS. Believe it or not, DS Sinhala is now the 15th in this list, just for making an alphabet based in SBCS! If not for the Sinhala script side of it, there is no difference among the set except the preeminent place English alphabet holds at low level programming matters.

Mr. Yagirala says, "The fact that people in Germanic speaking nations (Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark) find it particularly easy to learn English is mainly due to the similarity between English and their respective mother tongues". It is true that they are related languages but there commonality with English is about the same as Sinhala has with English. The mere fact that you know one of these languages does not give an advantage to learn English over a native from a different group of languages. However, if you ask, as I have at numerous times, a native speaker of one of the Western European languages as to how they became proficient in English, they all point to one fact that we as Sinhalese lack -- the common script, Latin. It simply increases the exposure to English printed matter. The other is learning it and using it everyday.

I believe that romanizing helps bilingualism, without the inferiority complex Mr. Yagirala so rightly pointed out. Sinhala hodiya would be an indispensable tool in learning the three national languages in laying out a firmer ground to understand the fundamentals of the languages making it easier for the child to be even trilingual. The name of the subject could be ‘National Languages’ than Sinhala, Tamil and English as separate subjects.

Romanizing brings the native Sinhala speaker to the wider cyber world without effort. DS Sinhala helps in this in a subtle way. It allows the user to read and type in Sinhala and at the same time understand the Latin base of the system. I know what I say is hard to understand unless you see an example. The following page has English on the top and Sinhala at the bottom.

The second part is a translation of the English on top. The Sinhala in romanized form could be read with a little effort. The hardest letter to learn is the Old English letter Thorn (ž). Once you realize that its difference with 'p' is the same as that 'h' has with 'n', you yield and get over the mental block, ‘pulling out the horn! Romanized Sinhala is very similar to Icelandic that Mr. Yagirala made special mention of. An Icelandic specialist watched over the creation of the alphabet. But then, you don't have to limit Sinhala to Latin letters. Install world's first smart font and magically you would be able to read it in the full glory of the Sinhala script! (Warning: Not everywhere yet). DS Sinhala is technically a very simple idea. It is the combination of romanized alphabet with a smartfont that displays the Latin characters in Sinhala complex forms. The smartfont covers the mixed Sinhala Hodiya most comprehensively.

We do not have the luxury to say "Outsourcing is a dangerous business" and not seek work from abroad. Currently, the country shamefully depends on the mothers and sisters working in the ME staking their lives for the sake of their families. (Where did the money for the SUVs come?) There are millions of American businesses dreaming of their own beautiful web site. Computer programming, especially web application development and web site creation should be one of our top skills. We can beat every other nation in this because we have the unique distinction of being a beggar nation with 90 plus percent literacy rate.

It is the mentality of the elite in Colombo that has made the country a beggar nation. They think that the university graduates are the first in line for jobs. Some are still trained as clerks as the British intended. Others do not seem to be able to produce much than to take directions from foreign experts or imitate them. Show me ten doctoral theses that actually benefited the country to prove the contrary. How many local inventions help the advancement of the nation? These all point to the vanity of this mentality that somehow university education makes one super capable. Where are those talents? I think universities create a class of disappointed people with built up egos now hard to deflate. They ought o have been trained in trade schools that actually could have trained them for productive jobs. Good such examples were AMP and JTO courses of the past.

You do not need a University degree to write programs. The industry is moving too fast for class-room learning. The younger you are the better you are suited to learn programming. I have a college degree in computer science, and I am an IT consultant in the US. Nothing I learned in college is useful today as then it was the era of Mainframe computers and infancy of the Personal Computer. Even at that time, US colleges lagged behind the market place because the pace of the industry is too fast. Everything I learned was from field experience and networking and through the recognition as a member of the industry.

Adolescence is the best period to learn computer programming. The best part is that help is openly available on the web for free as Mr. Yagirala pointed out. Obviously, help pages in Sinhala could be created easier with romanized Sinhala. Actually, need for English is minimal, to the level that anyone that walked upon this earth understands. The American IT industry is hiring people from abroad because programming jobs are not ones that Americans excel in. (Computer Science is something they culturally fear like mathematics. Yes. They protest pointing to outsourcing). The out-sourced jobs are mainly telephone based tech support, which are scripted and require good ability in comprehending multiple American accents and ability to suppress Indian muurdhaja sounds. Indians that even cannot type are the latest batch I came across. Web based program development itself is becoming increasingly web based with foreign countries contracting. I know Lankan brains are ideal for this work. All they need is NOT formal training, not English, but ready and free access to Internet based computers. Learning will come automatically as curiosity and desire to succeed drive innovation.

If I am to use my experience in the IT field to determine which system, Unicode Sinhala or Dual-script Sinhala is more useful in the commercial area of application, I’d say that Dual-script is much better. Here are the points that come to mind:

1. It has no regional limitation. The biggest drawback of Unicode Sinhala is that by virtue of it being dual-byte and limited to its own script, it is tragically localized to the local users.

2. It is fully supported in Windows, Linux and Macintosh in its romanized form and Sinhala form with Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.

3. Windows has free word processors that support Dual-script Sinhala. All programs by Adobe support DS Sinhala in the Sinhala script.

4. It fully covers all three languages, Sinhala, Sanskrit and Pali. Unicode Sinhala is flawed even within Sinhala

5. In its romanized form it is native in all fully developed commercial computer applications that took 3 decades to come to the present stage. Unicode Sinhala does not have such applications for use because it belongs to the Double-byte Character Space (DBCS).

6. It uses the same English keyboard extended for European use. It is ideal for fast typing as required for court-room transcription.

7. It does not degrade to garbage when received at a computer that is not localized for Sinhala but gracefully falls back to romanized Sinhala.

Please read these pages to understand what Dual-script Sinhala is:

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