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World Wide Words

English is the dominant language of the internet, which can pose problems for users who are not fluent in English. However, all is not lost as global search engines can help users find links to websites and portals in most languages.

The difficulty arises with languages such as Arabic, Mandarin or Cyrillic, for example, which are not based on the Roman alphabet – like English. Imagine, then, how localised and restrictive the web can be if your keyboard does not operate in any of these character sets.

The dominance of the qwerty keyboard, and of Roman characters in programming, is even more deep-seated. The balkanisation of the internet into linguistic groups hemmed in by character sets has become a major concern for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the organisation that manages the internet’s domain naming system and address allocations. Without it, we would not be able to find our way around the internet.

ICANN president and chief executive Paul Twomey sees a challenge in supporting worldwide internet growth and making it fully interoperable. In a 25 March interview in the Financial Times, he said: “How do we ensure that communities in Saudi Arabia and Tamil Nadu express themselves in their own language and, at the same time, have an address system that’s fully interoperable?”

Another of ICANN’s battles is to try to preserve the internet as owned by nobody and usable by everybody. It aims to bring about common standards of governance to ensure it is not abused or exploited by anyone. Meanwhile, it is having to resist the global corporations that want to set the technical standards for the internet’s infrastructure to their immense profit rather than the greater good of mankind.

It would appear, then, that the English language is the issue. It is the primary medium for internet colonisation and if it succeeds in continuing its dominance other languages will pioneer their own internets and the truly global aspiration of the net will be lost.

Put another way, we are faced with an opportunity to avoid the internet becoming an electronic Tower of Babel, where languages divide rather than unify humanity. To seize it, developers will have to come up with an infrastructure that is more open and accommodating to languages other than English.

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