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Wednesday, 19 January, 2000, 18:04 GMT
Ancient alphabet enters cyber age

The alphabet used in Ethiopia and Eritrea is Africa's oldest. Laeke Mariam Demessie reports on the efforts to get the 276-letter script to work on computers.

Ethiopic script has been in use since 100 BC. It is the only indigenous African alphabet still in use today.

But it was only in 1991 that the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission (ESTC) first displayed the Ethiopic alphabet on a computer.

The greatest breakthrough was to come up with the idea
Programmer Mesfin Belay
The reaction of one European was: "It is impossible - how did you do it?" recalls Dr Nega Alemayehu, a lecturer in information technology at Addis Ababa University.

But as Ethiopian computer programmer Mesfin Belay points out: "The greatest breakthrough was not in developing an Ethiopic alphabet programme or software, it was rather to come up with the idea.

"Just as you have software in Japanese, Korean or Arabic, there was no reason why one cannot develop Ethiopic script."

Quicker than handwriting

Daniel Admasse, an Ethiopian who studied in Sweden, claims to have been the first person to come up with the idea of computerising "fidel", as Ethiopians call their alphabet.

Three challenges
Designing the fonts
Keyboard layout
While studying in Sweden he helped produce materials for an Ethiopian studies conference. Some of the conference texts were in Ge'ez, the ancient language which is the ancestor of modern Ethiopian languages.

But he found that in Sweden he had no means of printing Ethiopic script.

"So the burden of writing by hand in Ge'ez letters and reducing them using a camera fall on me," Mr Daniel recalls.

"My handwriting was bad. Because of that incident I said to myself why shouldn't I develop an Amharic computer programme?".

"I started working on it in 1982 and developed an Ethiopic WordPerfect version 2.01 in one year".

Programmes develop

By 1991, one could take computer courses in Amharic even if one didn't know English
Programmer Daniel Admasse
Mr Daniel returned to Ethiopia in 1987, and set up a team of computer programmers at the ESTC. There they developed Ethiopic software ranging from a disc operating system to a desktop publishing programme.

"So we had a complete set of Ethiopic computer programmes in Fidel and the Amharic language by 1991, which meant one could take computer courses in Amharic even if one didn't know English."

Mr Daniel has since developed an Ethiopic version of WordPerfect 6.0.

He says the first challenge was to design the fidel characters. This was done using a computer programme known as font manager.

Lots of letters

The second challenge was to put the 276 characters onto the English language keyboard designed to accommodate only 26 letters.

Each character in the Ethiopic alphabet represents a syllable: a combination of consonant plus vowel. There are 33 consonants and seven vowels.

So 33 of the keys are assigned to the different consonant sounds, which are used in combination with keys such as "control" and "alt" to create the vowel-consonant combinations.

"The English keyboard was made to recognise only 26 characters, but to make it recognise 276 Ethiopic characters the computer programmers have to override the rules in the computer," Mr Daniel explains.

"This was made possible by using the keyboard handler program."

Ethiopic characters also have to be attuned to American Standard Coding for Information Interchange (ASCII) which assigns letters to the numerical codes which the computer works with.

The third challenge was printing. The printing of Amharic characters was complicated in the earlier generations of printers, Mr Daniel says, but has become simpler with more recent laserjet printers.

Standardisation headaches

Therefore any Ethiopic alphabet software is a package which deals with the designing of characters, keyboard layout and printer set-up.

However efficient and fast a keyboard layout is, it is useless unless accepted as a standard
IT lecturer Dr Nega Alemayehu
Some Ethiopian computer engineers in Canada have also been developing Ethiopic software independently, out of a sense of patriotism, Dr Nega says.

But the enthusiastic rush to develop software led to a new problem: lack of standardisation. Today there are at least 35 Ethiopic software products available, each with its own character set, encoding system, typeface names, and keyboard layout.

"However efficient and fast a keyboard layout is, it is useless unless accepted as a standard by users," Dr Nega argues.

The lack of standardisation also makes it difficult to transfer documents from one computer to another - including e-mail.

The problems of Ethiopic computing have resulted in the creation of the Ethiopian Computer Standard Association (ECOSA), of which Dr Nega is president, and the North American-based Committee for Ethiopian Computing (CEC).

The two groups are working on standardisation of the Ethiopic script on the computer.

"We have come together to face the challenge," says Dr Nega, who is optimistic about finding a solution.

"The sooner we standardise Ethiopic script computing, the faster we hop on the global information superhighway."

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