BBC-January 19, Ancient alphabet enters cyber age

BBC-January 19,

Laeke Mariam Demessie: Ancient alphabet enters cyber age




             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 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 ratherto come up with the idea.


              "Just as you have software in Japanese, Korean or Arabic there was

              no reason why one can not 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.


              While studying in Sweden he helped produce materials for an Ethiopian

              studies conference. Some of theconference 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," 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


              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



              "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."


              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



              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," 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 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.


              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."