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How Indigenous languages were brought back to life online

Typotheque’s fonts allow Nattilingmiutut and Dakelh speakers to write their languages digitally.

How Indigenous languages were brought back to life online

Until recently, two Indigenous Canadian communities were limited in how they reproduced their languages on digital platforms. The problem: some of the characters used to digitally represent sounds from these languages (called syllabics) were overlooked or inaccurately rendered when they were encoded into the Unicode Standard—a set of code that underpins digital text, ensuring characters look the same across computers and programs.

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[Image: courtesy Typotheque]
A broad swath of the characters used to write the Dakelh (Carrier) language, spoken by the Dakelh community in British Columbia, were incorrectly represented, making them illegible to the already small number of Dakelh speakers. Meanwhile, members of the Nattilingmiut Inuit community, who speak the Inuktut dialect Nattilingmiutut, were missing 12 of their 138 syllabic characters entirely.

[Image: courtesy Typotheque]
These issues came to the fore in May 2020, when Kevin King, a Canadian researcher and typeface designer working with Dutch font foundry Typotheque, was tasked with building a comprehensive set of fonts for the Unicode set representing these languages, alongside Ojibwe, Cree, and others. The effort and resulting fonts made Typotheque the winner of the Graphic Design category in Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design awards.

[Image: courtesy Typotheque]
At the outset, King asked himself, “What is the respectful way to exchange knowledge with communities?” he says. “Because if I come in just trying to seek knowledge, often it’ll just lead to closed doors, even if I have good intentions.”

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His outreach efforts led him to Janet Tamilik McGrath, an Inuktut language consultant who had previously worked with local organizations and Nattilik elder and language keeper Nilaulaaq Aglukkaq to solve the issue of the missing syllabics.

“All the other syllabics that have ever been made for computers, they’re just made and then given to us—so there are spacing issues and other glitches, and we used them anyway but they don’t work that well,” McGrath said. In the late aughts, Nilaulaaq had worked with Attima and Elizabeth Hadlari and another font foundry to create a custom font and keyboard for Natsilingmiutut speakers. But anyone who wanted to use it had to manually load it onto their computer, and it wasn’t supported by any machine without the font and keyboard installed.

[Image: courtesy Typotheque]
King worked with McGrath and Nilaulaaq to reach people who could speak and write Natsilingmiutut; they wrote samples of the adapted syllabics that King incorporated into a proposal to the Unicode Consortium to add the missing characters. The proposal was quickly accepted and the new characters were added to the Unicode Standard when it was updated in September 2021.

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“Because our writing system is 100% phonetic, if it’s not written properly, then it can’t be spoken properly,” McGrath says. “It’s a very bright day for [Natsilingmiutut] language transmission that there’s a phonetic system that is consistent with the spoken language.”

[Image: courtesy Typotheque]
In a similar manner to his work with McGrath and Nilaulaaq, King also worked with Dakelh language keeper and teacher Francois “Guy” Prince and other members of the Dakelh community to submit proposed changes to the Carrier glyph set that were also accepted by the Unicode Consortium, which published them in September.

Beyond making the font viable, the changes to the Carrier glyph set allowed for accurate phonetic writing of the language—which Prince hopes will make it easier to learn and have fewer divergences over spelling than the version that has been written using the Latin alphabet.

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“We’re establishing a way for our language to be represented in a perfect spelling and perfect pronunciation format,” Prince says.

All of the changes to Unicode are supported by the fonts that Typotheque released, though wider support for these changes is ultimately reliant on tech companies adjusting the fonts that they preload into computers and phones. But it’s the biggest step toward widespread digital support for the previously inaccurate and missing syllabics since the initial encoding in 1999.

“The syllabics are actually retaining the spirit of the language,” says Prince, who is developing a curriculum that incorporates the new syllabics glyphs. “I just feel bad we haven’t done this sooner,” he says, “because I see people’s tattoos and there are actually mistakes in them.”

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This story is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world.

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