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Grants:Impact/Cultural Heritage/Script encoding for Nepal

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Impact of Grants
Script Encoding Nepal
Location:  Nepal
Grantee:  Deborah Anderson (Unicode Consortium)
Grant information
  • Program: Project & Events
  • Fiscal year: 2014-15
  • Amount: ~4000 USD

Newar, also known as Nepal Bhasa (नेपाल भाषा), is an old language from Nepal. It served as the administrative language of government from the 14th until the late 18 century A.C.E. Given that first written accounts appeared in the 10th century A.C.E, today there are over a millennium of cultural, religious, and historical documents from this culture and civilization.

Yaks passing by Pheriche in the Everest region, Nepal.

However, in the 18th century A.C.E. the ruling family of Nepal was conquered by the Gorka, who instituted a new language (Khas Kura, or Nepali) and script (Devanagari). Until 1951, when the ban on the Newar language and script was lifted, Newar had faced repression within Nepal. One of the results of the long-lasting policies against the language and its script is that by 2014, Newar was one of the largest languages to not have a Unicode encoding for their script.

Unicode is an incredibly important piece of technology, that allows a language to participate in the digital age. It is the underlying standard that allow a character to be rendered correctly on all devices and all platforms; without it, you’re likely to see boxes or nonsense letters or symbols, instead of characters. The political and social repression of Newar combined with the lack of a Unicode encoding for Nepal Lipi means that social and technical conditions limited Newar’s participation in the digital age.

Efforts to create a Unicode encoding for Nepal Lipi began in the late 1990s. In 2012, there were two different groups working on two different Unicode proposals. They needed to create a final, reconciled proposal in order to be accepted by the two standards committees (ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 and the Unicode Technical Committee). But unfortunately, virtual collaboration had reached an impasse and the proposals were stalled. So in 2014 the Wikimedia Foundation Project & Event Grant program funded a week long, in-person retreat in Nepal for these two groups, in order to reach a resolution. By the end, they had a clear plan to create their unified proposal, which was ultimately accepted by the standards committees in 2015 and entered into Unicode version 9 in 2016.

Announcement Event on Standardization on Scripts of Nepal Bhasha in Kathmandu

This victory unlocked a decade long journey for the language. In 2018, Newar has finally entered Google Noto Fonts, and is in the process of getting a standardized font for the script. After the font is finalized, the script will need a keyboard, then need to be adopted by different operating systems; only then will Newar speakers be able to use the script on all devices and all platforms.

But other languages can offer an insight into what might be true for Newar in the future. The Cherokee Nation went through a similar journey[1], and it has lead to the revitalization of their language. Now, via technology, people can learn Cherokee on language learning apps, and text each other in Cherokee. Youth will participate in language fairs, where they might create covers of popular songs. And all of this is enabled by their language, cultural heritage, and technology.

Now that you've read this case study, consider...

How do you measure the success of a project that takes years to be realized?