Why Internationalize?

Tower of Babel

Seth Godin‘s book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us looks like a good read, especially for marketers, crowd-herders, and entrepreneurs. Along with the book, he also started an invitation-only triiibal network on Ning, and got the folks to write an ebook called The Tribes Casebook (free download).

There’s a particular essay in there written by Dr. Saleh AlShebil titled When Technology Fails: A Language gets Born in an Online Tribe. Dr. AlShebil wrote about how an ASCII-based language (that he calls Araby) was born due to the lack of Arabic language input support on early instant messaging networks. These are transliterations of Arabic into Latin alphabets, not unlike l33t but grew out of different motivations.

Here’s what it looks like (source):

Sound Arabic letter ASCII Example
/ħ/ (a heavy /h/-type sound) ح 7 wa7ed (one)
/ʕ/ (a tightening of the throat resembling a light gargle) ع 3 ba3ad (after)
/t’/ (the emphatic version of /t/) ط 6 6arrash (he sent)
/s’/ (the emphatic version of /s/) ص 9 a9lan (actually)
/ʔ/ (glottal stop) ء 2 so2al (question)

So, واحد (one) sounds roughly like “wahed”, and you’d write it as “wa7ed”.

Quoting Dr. AlShebil (emphases added):

Arabic language alphabet is comprised of 28 letters. Some of these letters do not have an equivalent “sound” in English. So what did our online tribe do? They began looking for numbers and other keystrokes that can somehow resemble what the real Arabic letter “looks” like. Let me explain…

For instance, the Arabic letter “ﻉ” is pronounced as A’aa when used in a word and it got replaced with the number “3” since “3” looks like an inverted “ﻉ”. So the word Arabic which is written “Araby” (in Arabic sounding English) and begins with “ﻉ” was then written as “3raby.”

…This new form of tribal net lingo began to spread like wildfire. It would probably be a safe assumption to say that any Arab who is online today (especially the youth) is pretty familiar with it. Using it was not limited to chat and instant messaging but has also swelled to include any form of writing in online communities and even in mobile text messaging (sms). The Arabic net lingo virus caught on to Arabic websites that even wanted their domain names to sound or “look” Arabic.

As mentioned above, this is similar to l33t-speak, and also the lesser-known ギャル文字 (Gyaru-Moji).

Now, I dig subcultures like these, but don’t you think there’s something wrong with the emergence of a new lingo that could potentially erode a language like Arabic just because technology couldn’t support it?

Is this serious enough to erode the Arabic language? Maybe I’m exaggerating but one can imagine youths forgetting how to spell correctly in Arabic script because they’re so used to using “Araby”.

This is the case for why internationalization is important for the Internet (and technology in general.) More importantly, it is the prime motivation behind Internationalized Domain Names, which is in turn a primary contributor to the need for new TLDs.

Internationalization is not for vanity or luxury, it’s a necessity to preserve culture.



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