Word Domination

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Oct 17 19:43:53 UTC 2008


Word Domination October 17th, 2008 · by David Bradley

If you are reading the original English version, albeit with a
quasi-transatlantic twang, then you probably think of English as being
the *lingua
franca* of global communications. After all, in almost every sphere of human
endeavor, the world over, it seems that English is the predominant
language<http://www.ghacks.net/2008/10/16/convert-between-alphabets-on-the-fly/>.
However, if you are reading a translated version of this page in Portuguese
or Spanish, Russian or Chinese, you probably don't think of English as being
the default setting for information systems at all.

Indeed, with increasing globalization and the rapid re-emergence of Asian
regions from Beijing to Bangalore as major players, native English speakers
wherever they are now recognizing that there are many more people "out
there" who have this linguistic perspective. There are some "subtle and not
so subtle implications" for whichever language is the dominant language,
whether that is, for instance, English or Chinese. So say Carol Saunders and
Madelyn Flammia of the University of Central Florida, writing in a
forthcoming issue of the research journal IJEB. Those with their hands at
the controls of information systems, they say, need to understand the
implications that face them as citizens of an increasingly global world.

As such, the researchers address the issues facing those involved in managing
translation <http://www.sciencetext.com/web-site-translated.html> and offer
guidelines about website design that are sensitive to
cultures<http://www.netmechanic.com/news/vol6/design_no15.htm>that do
not use English as their primary or official language. The choice of
language has implications as far reaching as the digital divide but also as
localized menu and icon layout in website design. As the advertising slogans
of one bank (cough) suggests: "Global Needs to Think Local".

*Over a decade ago, the importance of learning Japanese was stressed.
However, knowing Japanese does not seem as critical to the manager of today.
Rather, as the world is becoming increasingly aware of China as an
(re)awakening giant, the advantages of speaking Chinese seem manifold. That
is why managers around the globe are starting to learn Chinese, challenging
English in some territories for educational resources and policy attention.*

Language certainly has implications for the power struggle at the regional,
national and international level. "Within a given language, certain dialects
or accents are privileged over others," explains the Florida team. This
association with privilege is not an intrinsic property of the language or
dialect but merely an artifact of the way those in authority and power at a
particular time and place speak. C'est la vie, one might say…

More seriously, of course, the incredibly widespread use of English can
subtly promote certain cultural values while essentially suppressing others.
The same will no doubt be said of any successor language as one inevitably
emerges when the current status quo becomes ancient history.

[image: ASCII]The English language is nevertheless still in a privileged
position, not least because of the technology underpinning the internet, the
researchers say. English can be represented by the 128-bit American Standard
Code for Information Interchange (ASCII). ASCII is ubiquitous and many other
standard codes are built around ASCII. But newer codes that accommodate
characters in other languages require up to 256 bits, which means more
computing resources are needed to get your message across in languages that
don't use a Roman script, such as Arabic or Chinese.

More importantly, critical internet systems such as the Domain Name Systems
(DNS), Usenet news and internet Relay chat work only with a subset of ASCII.
The rest of the world is marginalized by the geekery of the net. Although
China came into conflict with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
and Numbers (ICANN), a private non-profit organization, when it created
three top-level domains (TLDs based on Chinese characters: .gongsi (.com),
.wangluo (.net), and .zhongguo (China). The 22-nation Arab League has begun
a similar system using Arabic suffixes. But the English-speaking world, more
specifically the US, has veto on all domain names, although ICANN has
been testing
language domains<http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9042479&source=rss_topic16>
.

Khaled Fattal, the Arab American Chairman of the Multilingual Internet Names
Consortium (MINC <http://www.minc.org/>),
laments<http://wsjclassroom.com/archive/06apr/onln_alternet.htm>,
"There is no such thing as a global internet today… You have only
English-language Internet that is deployed internationally. How is that
empowering millions of Chinese or Arab citizens?"

With over 1.3 billion of Earth's inhabitants speaking Chinese as their
native tongue and many more learning it as a second language is English
likely to dominate on the internet? Saunders says, "there are actually more
people who have gone online who speak Chinese as their native language than
any other language, [according to a Nielsen/NetRatings
study<http://www.reuters.com/article/internetNews/idUSSHA29750720080313>done
in conjunction with CNNIC and Beijing internet company BDA]" So, what
will be the flavor linguistic flavor of the globalization of which we hear
so much and how will that affect the internet in the long-term?

Flammia and Saunders offer a few thoughts on web design sensitivity.
Terminology and jargon, words like nuke and abort, may seem harmless to
Mountain Dew drinking western programmers, but how are such terms perceived
by other cultures<http://webdesign.about.com/od/color/a/bl_colorculture.htm>?
Icons, colors <http://mrjavo.com/choosing-the-best-colors-for-your-website/>,
words - there are many that are consider inappropriate at best by other
cultures and seriously offensive at worst. The ring shape between thumb and
index fingers formed as an OK by Westerners is offensive to some cultures.
As are flat hands, upturned feet, the depiction of human beings, animals,
geographic landmarks, maps, taboo symbols, and color…the list goes on. All
traps an unwary international web designer may fall into.

What about the notion that democracy is the best approach to government? Not
all cultures, particularly hierarchical ones would agree, even those at the
foot of the pyramid see their position there as valid, something that is
difficult to comprehend for individuals empowered by their right to vote and
freedom of speech. Maps too represent a serious point of contention, why
shouldn't my country, you might ask, be at the centre, with North at the
top? Ask any Australian for a response to that. And yes, Western web design
takes many of these things as given and assumes that the resst of the world
accepts them too.

Even the direction we move our eyes when reading a web page courts
controversy. Website design itself generally follows the left to right, top
to bottom approach of English-speaking readers, but millions of people read
right to left or bottom to top. There is even evidence that left-to-right is
not the most efficient approach for our brains, but that's a different
story. At the time of writing, Google was continuing to address the language
issue<http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/10/helping-you-break-language-barrier.html>and
Multilingual
Search <http://www.multilingual-search.com/> has much to discuss on the
subject.

"The first step in mindful communication is an awareness of and respect for
other perspectives," the researchers say, "While it is true that the use of
English as the language of the internet impacts power at a societal level
and privileges one class of internet users, it is also possible for English
to be used with awareness and cultural sensitivity."

Language has power so website design has to be culturally sensitive. Of
course, the same principles apply regardless of whether the *lingua
franca*is English or Mandarin.

[image: research-blogging-icon]Carol S. Saunders, Madelyn Flammia (2008). A
subtle war of words on the internet International Journal of Electronic
Business, 6 (4) DOI:
10.1504/IJEB.2008.020673<http://dx.doi.org/10.1504/IJEB.2008.020673>


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