Linux and Ethnodiversity

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

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

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

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
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
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

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.