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Linux and Ethnodiversity

Jan 21, 1999, 00:08 (13 Talkback[s])

by Martin Vermeer

(Professor Vermeer argues eloquently and conclusively that putting software localization into the hands of a company like Microsoft would be very limiting and a detriment to human culture. -- Editor)

Linus Torvalds is one of the six per cent or so of Finns who have Swedish as their mother tongue. One is tempted to ask if this is a coincidence; I want to argue that it is not.

Throughout world history, contributions to the things that make our society worth being called civilization -- literature, science, art, music, social innovation -- seem to have come in a vastly disproportionate measure from people who were not at home in one national culture only, but in several, or that belonged to another culture than the mainstream one in their country. Think only of the contribution the Jews made to European art, science, architecture, and social innovation; or the influence of the African slaves and their descendants on North American -- and thus Western -- musical culture. An alien entity tuning in only to Earth's music radio stations could easily conclude that the dominant continent on this planet is Africa!

There is ample real life proof for this, and considering multi-ethnicity a problem rather than a great opportunity is such a sad shortsightedness. (Consider this next time you go out eating Thai :-)

Also, Finland is a case in point; ask people in the street what famous Finns they know and see what comes up. Sibelius, of course, and Mannerheim;Kekkonen will be mentioned and the runner Paavo Nurmi; and, of course, Torvalds.Few will mention the Nobel prize winning writer Sillanpää, and even fewer the chemist Gadolin; he lived before Finland had attained statehood. But did you notice that half of the "famous Finns" have Swedish family names? Not bad for a 6% minority...!

Numbers don't mean that much.

It is important to understand that a nation is more than a piece of real estate. Sure, the real estate is needed to anchor a nation's existence -- but nationhood is about language, culture, and way of life. And the language is the gateway into a nation's culture and way of life. Heck, it is even a gateway into a way of thinking!

Knowing only one language -- English, let's say -- tends to impose certain patterns on one's ways of thinking. Knowing one more language inevitably widens one's perspective, especially if the language does not belong to the same family. I know from experience: When I moved from The Netherlands up North to Sunny Suomi, I was confronted with the need to learn this weird, alien, Finno-Ugrian tongue. Ah well, at least the alphabet was Latin, and the spelling phonetic and utterly predictable. I learned to read Finnish texts aloud so that my listeners understood them even if I didn't.

Hard work it was, but well worth it. Finnish is so entirely different from Western languages -- no articles, for instance, and no real propositions -- the fourteen-odd cases fullfill that function -- and almost everythingis done with prefixes and suffixes: possession, negation, diminution, etcetera.And the "verb of negation": I not, you not, he/she not, ... weird! And the partitive case playing the role of the "partitive article" in French (and in fact in English, where it is represented by a missing article).

Compared to learning Finnish, Swedish was easy, being so close to Dutch. Regularly reading the daily paper "Hufvudstadsbladet" was enough. But not as useful for shaping the brain as Finnish was. It's a bit like learning programming languages: after knowing Pascal, other procedural languages hold few secrets; but Lisp is a different cup of tea.

Finnish is not a small language; world wide, it belongs to the 200 largest amongst a total of 5000 currently existing languages. Small languages -- those threatened with extinction -- count on average 6000 speakers. It is expected that 2000 such small languages will become extinct during the coming century. Such extinction represents an irretrievable loss of part of the common heritage of mankind, a loss not unlike that of a biological species.

Extinction is forever.

Finnish, and Finnish-Swedish, the variety of Swedish spoken in Finland, are established national languages with a firm legal status, so one would think that they are not under threat. Well, think again. According to an article appearing last summer (http://www.seattletimes.com/news/technology/html98/icel_063098.html) Microsoft is not prepared to translate, or localize, Windows into the Icelandic language. Too small a market. And all icelanders know English anyway. They are not prepared to let the icelanders do it, either; no way they are going to let some banana republic play with their precious source code!

What makes this all the more painful is that Iceland is an exceptionally literate nation and Icelandic an established national language enjoying massive official support. If this can happen to Icelandic, how can one expect any support for even smaller languages such as Faerisk (the Faeroe islands' language), Saame (the Laplanders' language) and Greenlandic/Inuit? There exists a common term bank project of the Nordic countries, nordterm; one wonders why a corresponding initiative for software localization has not been talked about more, also in the European context; fear of technical complexity?

It must be clear from this that no small nation can afford to be dependent on a large commercial software company for the preservation of its national heritage. Heck, Microsoft's turnover is bigger than Iceland's GNP! Literacy today means also computer or IT literacy and becomes an impossibilityif not even the operating system that runs all computers is available inlocalized form.

The Icelandic minister of culture has tried, apparently without success, to turn Microsoft's corporate head, threatening to investigate "alternatives" in case they don't listen. Apropos, the KDE graphic desktop environment for Linux, has been partially "Icelandized" (www.kde.org/i18n.html). Perhaps Iceland should investigate this alternative anyway, even if Microsoft would chance to reluctantly give in to the pressure. It's way better to be master of one's own fate. Open source offers an easy and attractive way to localize all software, not least due to the foresight and lack of cultural prejudice of the Free Software Foundation providing such an excellent tool as gettext. Having myselfbeen involved in localization efforts for the LyX document processor, I believe this alternative to be a fully realistic one.

Computer sovereignty?

Talking about diversity in the context of free software, it's not just about ethnodiversity. The notion of diversity as freedom lives and prospers in Linux. Let a hundred desktops blossom! People are different, so whyshouldn't software be. Besides, freedom works. Funny to think ofLinux and freedom as manifest destiny, as illustrated by the emerging binary compatibility standard for Unix -- something the big vendors with their expensive consortia never achieved. Now, for the first time in history, it's being done, courtesy of a "bunch of hackers", thank you very much. Freedom works for hatching world-class software, but just as well forevolving mature, workable standards.

If you're content to just have the trains run on time, you won't even achieve as much as that. Freedom is no luxury. And freedom breeds diversity, which is not a sign of weakness -- quite the opposite. That's just the same error that all dictators make, to mistake the rough-and-tumble of democratic discourse for a display of weakness.

In conclusion, I want to quote the Finnish, ethnic Swedish computer linguistics professor Fred Karlsson, who was interviewed in Hufvudstadsbladet on the occasion of his election as "professor of the year" (and yes, you can finger him :-):

"We have in fact started to use certain concepts analogous to those in biology -- we talk of linguistic habitats, diversity and so on. The small, indigenous peoples' languages are perfectly adapted to their needs, local environment, way of life. Reflecting upon the value of diversity, we should also realize that a language is a crystallization of many hundreds of generations of labor and of understanding the world around us. It is like asking whether the work and world view of our ancestors have any value. Of course, they have."

Martin Vermeer is a research professor and department head at the Finnish Geodetic Institute, as well as "docent" (probably something like assistant prof.?) at Helsinki University, Department of Geophysics. He uses Linux both at work and at home.