Santhosh Thottingal
Santhosh Thottingal. Photo by Kavya Manohar, 2017 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Typing and reading online in a non-English language with a non-Latin script is not always easy.

Speakers of the Indic language Malayalam used to depend on buggy, badly rendering fonts to write on the Internet. But a dedicated decade-long effort has made typing and writing Malayalam on the Internet a breeze.

Senior Wikimedia Foundation Software Engineer Santhosh Thottingal helped lead the effort to ensure that the roughly 38 million people in India who speak Malayalam can communicate online in their own language.

“Malayalam did not have functional bug-free fonts, not only in free software but in proprietary operating systems,” he says in an interview on the Wikimedia Blog.

Determined to bring his native language fully into the digital world, Thottingal taught himself computational linguistics and worked with Swathanthra Malayalam Computing, a free software collective.

“We developed input tools, fixed rendering issues, designed and developed new fonts and defined and implemented many computational algorithms for Malayalam like collation and hyphenation. And we continued to work on more complex projects,” says Thottingal. “The community project became a larger group of volunteers.”

Enabling Internet users to type and read in the diversity of the world’s languages is an Internet health issue. But English, Latin and left-to-right scripts dominate the landscape, and translating software is often treated as an afterthought. In part, that’s because it’s complicated.

"The Internet is healthier when everyone can read and write in their own language” in the Manjari font.
“The Internet is healthier when everyone can read and write in their own language” in the Manjari font, used with permission from Santhosh Thottingal.

Having a command of the English language is a tangible privilege when it comes to character inputs, spell-checkers, autocompletion and searches. Similarly, software development itself is biased towards the English language.

For the majority of people in the world who do not speak English, this bias increases the barriers of adopting technology and accessing information. In so doing, this favoritism of English helped create – and today helps maintain – a global digital divide.

“The Latin typeface design field is so saturated. It has thousands of fonts in all possible designs you can imagine. It is very difficult to get attention if you design a new font there. But here, in Malayalam, there are only a dozen functional Unicode fonts,” Thottingal says.

“If you don’t have a functional, bug free font for a script, you cannot read the content,” he says. That’s why he considers creating new fonts to be so rewarding.

In cracking open the door to the digital world just a little further for 38 million people, Thottingal’s work is an example of how software engineers from different linguistic backgrounds can help bridge the linguistic digital divide to create a healthier Internet.

Further reading:

Thoughtingal, blog of Santhosh Thottingal
Wikimedia engineer contributes several fonts to Malayalam language, Wikimedia Blog, 2018<