Two little questions on Google’s transliteration device

April 24, 2008

Some time ago Google set up a standalone version of their transliteration tool which was in place for Blogger, Orkut, and maybe some other services. It does Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam. I have two thoughts about it spinning in my mind. (I think I just saw the standalone for the first time, which is why I’m commenting.) I’m not even going to ask why they left out poor Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Tibetan, Thai, Sinhalese, and so on. (Although I would note that by calling the “Hindi” option Devanagari they could appeal to speakers of Nepali and Marathi who can, presumably, use it to write their languages perfectly well.)

  1. Why the specific anti-Mac discrimination?
  2. Why default to retroflex?

They say the feature is supported in IE 6+ and in Firefox on Windows and Linux, and that it does not work for Macs. According to some comments in the discussion list it mostly works in Safari, and I presume it works at least as well in Ffox on the Mac. I just don’t understand why those offering a service which is completely unsupported and mission critical for no one would bother to specifically exclude browsers and Operating Systems. Why not just say “tested on x and y, your mileage may vary,” or something like that?

The second opinion reflects a pet peeve of mine. Most Indic languages have dental and retroflex versions of many consonants. Generally speaking, the dental version is (IIRC) the more common in most languages. The English consonant is somewhere between the two. Native speakers of Indiac languages hear it as the retroflex – and speak and transliterate it accordingly, whereas native English speakers are more likely to assume they are using the dental in their native tongue and to have a hard time distinguishing the two when hearing and speaking them in Indic languages. Anyway, in linguistic circles when transliterating from an Indic language using a roman alphabet, it’s common to use the unadorned equivalent letter for the dental, and letters with dots or other serifs as the retroflex. As everything has to be pure ASCII, Google is using capitals as their “marked” letter. This is similar to Gwynn’s dictionary. But it’s backwards! You need a capital every time you want a dental form. Uff. It just bugs me. I don’t really have anything more intelligent to say about it.

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