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C.S. Senthilnathan in a well researched article
examined the New Tamil Font Encoding & Keyboard Standards

Laudable Lingual Mission Launched
Courtesy: The Hindu, 1999

Rarely are missions of common cause achieved. So, when the Government of Tamil Nadu finally announced the universally accepted standards for Tamil input systems for computers on June 13, 1999, thousands of Tamil software and net users across the world received it with great happiness.

Nobody expected that such a commercially sensitive, highly contestable issue of encoding and keyboard standardisation could be solved this soon. So, now the benefits go to the common net/computer user who chooses to use Tamil. If the Tamil software developers adhere to the standard encoding system and keyboard layout system recommended by the Government of Tamil Nadu and revised their applications, then the lakhs of Tamil users will enjoy the compatibility of software as those who use English based software.

Hereafter, one need not learn a new keyboard layout as and when switching over from one Tamil software to another. Anyone can open a file which contains a Tamil letter keyed in by using a Tamil software in another system which uses another Tamil software Y. One need not download dozens of Tamil fonts from Internet to read different Tamil websites. Think about this scenario. An e-mail sent by a rural artisan through a nearby World Tel-Tamil Nadu's community Internet centre can be read by a rural-development officer in Chennai without any problem of compatibility.

Behind this sudden uniformity is a story of 100 days of solidarity! After the International Conference and Seminar on Tamil in Information Technology (TamilNet 99) held at Chennai on February 7 and 8, 1999, based on the recommendation, two follow- up groups - Working Group and an International Technical Committee - were constituted to evaluate the technical issues and finalise coding standards for Tamil. The draft standards accepted in the conference were put to rigorous tests by the group members, software developers, and enthusiasts of Tamil computing around the world. It was decided that the testing period is 100 days and by June first week, the final standard should be announced.

Considerable feedback was received from researchers, software developers and enthusiasts throughout the world and these were first analysed by the Working Group and later by the members of the International Technical Committee. Based on the final suggestions of the International Technical Committee, the Sub- Committee on Tamil in Information Technology of the Tamil Nadu Government's Information Technology Task Force has proposed monolingual and bilingual encoding schemes for Tamil glyphs and a standard Tamil Keyboard layout. The Chairman of this Sub- Committee, Dr. M. Anandakrishnan has recommended these to the Government for approval.

The standards worth the prolonged discussion of years. At least, from May 1997, when the first TamilNet conference was held in Singapore to May this year, hundreds of experts voluntarily involved themselves in the process. The combined effort gave birth to excellent results. Just compare the new keyboard layout, named Tamil99 Keyboard, with any previous keyboard layouts used in Tamil, even with any other well-known keyboard layouts of any Indian language, you will find how beautiful, simple and intelligent it is.

The standard keyboard is a phonetic one. Many Indian language users may have been in the know of such layouts earlier. In phonetic keyboards, only consonants (mey) and vowels (uyir) are given keystrokes and the rest, consonant-vowel combinations (uyirmey) have been got by simply typing the corresponding consonant character and vowel character successively. For example, to type ki in Tamil, you need to type ka first, then e.

  Then, what's new in the Tamil99 standardised keyboard? Even in the phonetic category, there are a variety of layouts available in Tamil. Most of them have been developed by Tamil scholars and language developers, specifying the keys to the characters and keyboard sequencing. The current standard has, however, adopted all the well-proven, efficient and salient features of the above layouts and updated them into a new, simple system.

The amazing feature of Tamil99 is that you need not go to shift mode to type any Tamil letter. Only the five Tamil Grantha letters (which are used to write Sanskrit and foreign words in Tamil), Shri, and a few rarely used Tamil symbols (like date mark, year mark used in old Tamil books) are in the shift. All the 31 basic Tamil letters are in the normal mode.

It's said that no language keyboard in the world is now as simple as this! To represent 26 characters of English, you need 26 lower case and 26 upper case keys. But to represent 247 Tamil letters, you need only 31 keys! How laudable!

 The keyboard is remarkably intelligent. If you type, say u, in the beginning of a sentence or a word, the full u letter will appear on the monitor. If you press the same key Iu, after a consonant character, say ka, you will get ku. In most of the earlier keyboards one had to press two different keys to bring a full vowel and it's modifier (like i and kokki).

This intelligent key sequence was first introduced by Mr. Naa Govindaswamy, the Tamil internet pioneer. He was the first to develop an intelligent, grammar based phonetic keyboard, called IE keyboard or Kanian Keyboard in Tamil. He also analysed Tamil characters in order to assign the key positions ergonomically. Compare it with the Indian Government's Department of Electronics Indian languages keyboard (inscript), one will find a world of difference and realise how Tamil99 is more user-friendly. The Govindaswamy keyboard eliminates the need of 12 keys altogether! Unfortunately, this pioneer of Tamil computing and the man who initiated the standardisation movement has recently passed away.

Another feature imbibed into the keyboard layout is the auto-dot feature, which was first introduced by Prof. Krishnamurthy of Anna University. When a consonant symbol is followed by the same consonant symbol, the software automatically puts a pulli for the first consonant symbol. Or, when a soft consonant symbol is followed by the corresponding hard consonant symbol, the soft consonant will automatically get a pulli on top of it. This is a very important development. Because, in Tamil, the highly used keystroke is pulli.

Also, in majority of the Tamil words, when pulli letters come in the middle of the words, they are mostly either the case of doubling of the same letter or soft-hard pairs. Like kka, ngka, chcha, njcha, ththa, ntha etc. Another notable feature is assigning keys in such a way that the user can easily remember the layout. All vowels are kept on the left side and consonants on the right side. Short and long vowels are kept adjacently and soft consonants and their corresponding hard consonants are also put in neighbouring positions.

 So these important features - keeping all Tamil characters in Normal mode, synchronising a vowel key and its modifiers, auto- dotting, and strategic positioning of the keys render the Tamil99 keyboard a memorable millennium gift!

 Other standards announced by the Tamil Nadu Government are encoding systems. Today, every Tamil software, available in dozens, used its own encoding system. In the present 8 bit ASCII system, you can replace the existing ASCII characters with Tamil characters to configure a Tamil encoding system. When you do this, if you replace all the English/Latin characters except the punctuation marks and numerals, with Tamil characters (both basic and combined), the scheme is called monolingual encoding. Or, if you leave the first half of the ASCII table untouched, and change only the locations from 160 to 256, then you get bilingual scheme.

  The TN standard is unique in a way. We need a monolingual scheme, because for aesthetic printable fonts, you need all the non- breakable Tamil letters in the table to ensure seamless display. So, monolingual glyph encoding is necessary. But, for text processing, Internet, e-mail communication purposes, only bilingual is preferable.

When a sharp discussion arose over this issue, it was settled by the TamilNet99 technical members by taking a decision that Tamil will have both monolingual and bilingual schemes and the bilingual will be a subset of monolingual. That is in the second half of the table, both scheme consist the same basic characters and totally unsplittable characters of ku,koo series. The first half consists of the optional pure consonants, (which can be otherwise separated into letter and dot easily and ki, kee series, where the kokkis can be separated.

However, the Government has postponed the decision on standardising the character-encoding. In the not so distant future, all the world languages are going to adhere to a single standard called Unicode. The Unicode system, a 16 bit one, will comprise the characters of all the languages and assign each a code. But, in its version 2, the coding system for Tamil is represented by the ISCII standard prescribed by the Department of Electronics.

All Tamil computing experts unanimously rejected the present allotment for Tamil in Unicode, as it does not fully meet the needs of Tamil. So, the Sub-Committee decided to continue the debate to arrive at a solution regarding recommendation of a Tamil character encoding scheme to the Unicode. To ease the process and make it official too, the State Government has recently become a member of the Unicode Consortium.

Tamil is the first Indian language which got printed on paper in the sixteenth century. It is one of the first Indian languages to be digitised. It is the first Indian language to enter cyberspace with a standard input system. But will the efforts succeed? It will, it seems. In fact, one of the notable developments in post-TamilNet99 scenario is the emergence of Kanithamizh Sangam, an association of Tamil software developers in India. The members participated in the post-conference 100 day test period and came forward with the tested results, without which the current standards could have neither materialised nor been accepted.

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