Title: Response to comments on the question of encoding Old Semitic scripts in the UCS (N2097)

Source: Michael Everson, Everson Gunn Teoranta (IE)
Status: Expert contribution
Date: 1999-10-04
Action: For information

Wolfgang Röllig responded to my exploratory proposals to encode a number of Old Semitic scripts in the UCS in SC2/WG2 N2097 ( sc2/wg2/docs/n2097.pdf).


In this paper I will try to address the numbered points in Dr Röllig's contribution.

1. Representation of the original scripts for Ugaritic Cuneiform, Old Persian Cuneiform Phoenician, and Old South Arabian may have use for non-specialists, but does not address palaeographic concerns.

We understand that there may be a limited field of application for encoding scripts such as these, but such is the nature of the Universal Character Set. Representation of many kinds of texts, including the representation of secondary and paedagogical literature, must also be considered.

Palaeographic concerns could be handled by glyph variants in the fonts; this would still be advantageous to scholars wanting to use such codes for vocabulary lists which could be sorted and searched.

2. Scholars usually transliterate Ugaritic Cuneiform, Old Persian Cuneiform, and Old South Arabian into Latin letters, and Phoenician and Aramaic into Hebrew letters.

One must recognize that there are indeed other users of the Universal Character Set other than academic users. Nevertheless, we do have a strong commitment to supporting the best scholarship (as we did for Ogham and Runic, already encoded in the UCS). We are very interested to learn if there are Latin transliteration characters which cannot be represented with the UCS.

The UCS has to take into consideration many different user requirements. Runic and Ogham have both "serious" academic users and "popular" amateur users. Whether these latter can be served without compromising the academics is something we have to take into account. There is, however, no urgency to encode any immature proposal without the blessing of the academics.

It should be noted that Aramaic is still a spoken language, reported with 18,000 speakers in Syria and more in other countries like Iran, Iraq, and Kurdistan. What their character set requirements are is a matter which remains under investigation.

3A. Palaeography is of central concern to specialists.

Academics prepare documents for publication and teaching which may not be strictly palaeographical in nature. These may include grammars, dictionaries, teaching materials, examination papers, etc.

3B. Encoding of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform is of value only for introductory texts (550 characters), not necessarily for high-level academic treatment of texts.

As far as Cuneiform is concerned, encoding a restricted set may be of value for paedagogical reasons. There are a number of fonts (i.e. coded character sets) already available which are used for this purpose. These are based, just as an eventual encoding should be based, on catalogues such as those of Borger, von Soden and Röllig, Friedrich, etc. It is true that Cuneiform is a gigantic writing system but the question as to whether normalized texts (and exchange of normalized data) are of use to the community needs to be investigated further. In the meantime I can inform you that we have had queries from Indo-Europeanist specialists in Hittite as to the status of any Cuneiform encoding work being done at present.

4. Encoding Proto-Sinaitic is pointless.

We have received already other input from experts which confirms this. Proto-Sinaitic should not be considered further at this time.

5. Source materials are not up-to-date with current scholarship (for some or all of the proposals).

Of course it is true that we may be unaware of recent developments. We need to learn more. The reason for making a proposal is not to rush forward to encoding but precisely to do what has happened, namely to elicit response from experts!

When we encoded Ogham and Runic. we informed the academic community that while we were concerned with academic reality, we were also aware that we needed to deal with a rather large "new age", "neopagan", and "fantasy literature" community of users, who make and use (and buy!) Ogham and Runic fonts. While in the field of Semitics there are probably fewer such enthusiasts (there are probably almost no users interested in using these scripts for role-playing games and alphabetic divination), we had to recognize that for Ogham and Runic these users constituted a legitimate. if marginal, market. This again is not an argument to rush forward to ballot. However, "popular" users do need to be taken into account if possible, especially in light of the availability of font-technology glyph variations based on a basic character set, to provide with an academically acceptable encoding. Input on this, at least for the smaller scripts, would be welcome from the academic community.

Michael Everson,, 15 Port Chaeimhghein Íochtarach, Baile Átha Cliath, Éire, 1999-10-04