Thursday, 30 September 2010

Simplified Egyptian: A brief Introduction

I coined the term ‘Simplified Egyptian’ several years ago as a technical approach to making Ancient Egyptian in hieroglyphs more useable in the modern digital world (see HieroglyphsEverywhere.pdf, Bob Richmond, 2006).

The snag in creating an implementation has long been external factors such as the status of web browsers and Word Processors, along with the associated de-facto or formal industry standards. The devil is in the detail and there are many idiosyncrasies in modern technology once one departs from the everyday. A notion like Simplified Egyptian would be no more than a curiosity if it were not widely accessible on personal computers and other digital devices.

One factor in the equation was the need to include Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the Unicode standard (published in Unicode 5.2, October 2009). Implementations of 5.2 are slowly becoming available; for instance Google web search now accepts hieroglyphs although Microsoft Bing and Yahoo search do not yet. Another key factor is support by Internet browsers. Firefox 3.6 looks viable now and I expect the latest versions of other popular browsers to support Egyptian to some degree within the next few months.

As various pieces of the technical puzzle appear to be coming together in the 2011 timeframe I thought it would be useful to summarise now what I see Simplified Egyptian being about. I envisage putting more flesh on the bones in future blog posts on a prototype implementation as leisure time permits (this is an unfunded project at present so time is the enemy).

Simplified Egyptian (SE) works as follows.

1. Define a subset of the Unicode 5.2 list of characters for Egyptian Hieroglyphs, avoiding variants and rarely used (in Middle Egyptian) characters.
2. Define fixed rules for combining hieroglyphs into groups so these rules can be implemented in TrueType/OpenType fonts or alternative rendering methods.
3. Use left to right writing direction.
4. Define data tables and algorithms for text manipulation and sorting.
5. Define ‘normalized forms’ for guidance on ‘correct’ ways of writing and processing Simplified Egyptian.

A more recent notion - Super-Simplified Egyptian (SSE) - takes these principles further by identifying an even more condensed subset of the Hieroglyphic script, a proper subset of SE, with a palette of fewer than 200 hieroglyphs.

There is no question that the SE method is highly anachronistic, SSE extremely so. Nevertheless, there is some utility in the approach.

I am also aware that superficially what I’m proposing suggests a flavour of modernised Egyptian at odds with the requirements of Egyptology for working with an ancient language with script usage that evolved over 3000 years. I will make no apologies for the fact that this is indeed one application and if SE encourages wider understanding of Egyptian albeit at a reduced technical level that is no bad thing in my opinion. Nevertheless, the most interesting aspect from my own interest is the question of how to use such a mechanism to enable improvements for academically sound publication and study of ancient texts in the context of 3000 years of language/script evolution. A non-trivial topic I shall not touch on further today.

My plan is to make available some small working examples of Simplified Egyptian on a series of web pages during the next few weeks. These examples use a WOFF (Web Open Font Format) font derived from my InScribe font. The reasons for doing this now are twofold.

1. A new generation of Internet Browsers pays greater attention to industry standards and should be capable of supporting Simplified Egyptian. Firefox 4 and Internet Explorer 9 are in Beta at the moment and I want to make the samples available for browser testing in case there is a need to shake out any browser bugs.

2. InScribe 3 for Windows will not use Simplified Egyptian. Originally it was my intention that SE would be a feature but it turned out to introduce too many complications in modes of use. Nevertheless, InScribe 3 retains some ‘SE-friendly’ characteristics and I want to be able to test these for real on the Web as I complete work on the software.

The samples will not work for users of older browser technology (right now this is a high ninety something per cent of internet capable devices). My short term concern is only that an elegant and simple to use implementation works as and when devices gain adequate support for internet standards.

That is not to say that workarounds can’t be contrived for devices whose manufacturers or users are not able or prepared to adapt to the new standards-based internet landscape. I'm happy to hear of any proposals.

Right now, this means use Firefox 3.6 or later to view samples as intended. I’m also tracking Chrome, Internet Explorer 9 Beta and Safari releases.

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