It’s been a while since I’ve started thinking about an updated version of the old Burmese English Online Dictionary. To anyone involved in ICT aound Burma/Myanmar it may not come as a surprise that the main obstacle in that project was the font.
The Font Side
The first version back in 2006 was based on a font called Myanmar (Myanmar1) – a name that caused some headaches when later Unicode fonts of the same name came out. Generally speaking, “Myanmar” can be anything – noun or adjective, a country and a language, a citizenship and an ethnic group, let alone a beer brand. The font Myanmar was based on phonetic similarities with English, and in the spirit of literal transcription it should actually be called “Myanma” without the trailing “r”.
I soon realized that most of people from Burma who in fact care little about English keyboards predominantly used Win Burmese (Wwin_Burmese1) and so I created a second version that was based on this font. Win Burmese was really handy, providing all important glyphs and displaying reliably on various operating systems. The main problem consisted in ambiguities regarding the order of diacritics: When adding two diacritics to a character their order was mostly irrelevant for the visible result – good for typing, bad for searching. Each search run therefore needed a preceding routine that normalized such variations. A second complication arose from the homomorphy of some glyphs: Many users wrote “ya”/”ra” as “7” and “wa” as zero. We know similar issues from many Latin fonts, where zero looks like the capital “O” 1 and the small “L” like a capital “i” (a pain in the neck on my Mac).
The development of Myanmar/Burmese fonts seemed to follow the country’s own difficult political development and the tendency of its society to easily break up into factions. The Internet was increasingly full of sites offering Burmese fonts, often with dead links, there was considerable confusion about versions and hardly any agreement about naming the files 2. The development of Unicode made a big step – and yet has halted before the final finish – with Zaw Gyi that (probably through media web sites) has gained huge popularity. Free Unicode fonts gradually evolved and claim now to be complete and compliant, but you still encounter many compatibility issues depending on platform and browser.
For some time I considered resorting to Zaw Gyi, thus prioritizing popularity over purity and minimizing the hassle of inexperienced users with the installation of new fonts. On the other hand it was clear that once software corporations would discover the Myanmar market and Internet access improved, the choice was made in favour of Unicode. I have a feeling that particularly the development of the Myanmar Wikipedia gave it a push. Eventually I decided to cross the t’s and dot the i’s and chose Unicode.
- Operation should be easy enough for people who are not experienced using a computer: avoiding redundant options and cluttered pages, while offering context-sensitive advice and facilitating search if people spell words the way they (think to) hear them.
- As before, the dictionary should be fairly interactive in a way that users can suggest new words and corrections. This, of course, still requires moderation through the backend, making it necessary to find a compromise that doesn’t require to employ an editor. I realized that the confusion around Zaw Gyi and Unicode would have to lead to additional help.
- Responding to the current development, the new dictionary should be ready for smaller screens, like tablets or smartphones. Rather than having two different layouts, I decided to go for a responsive design.
Additionally I wanted to keep the previous features. And, being not a web designer, I also kept the colour scheme and most of the icons that over the years had become “a part of the family” although some of them are not directly related to their purpose.
The pie charts on the right show operating systems of visitors to www.burmese-dictionary.org and may illustrate the development. Today you cannot rely on Windows as the one operating system that covers the great majority of settings on the client side. Users with Myanmar language skills seem to use increasingly mobile devices and don’t shy away from high-priced brands. When developing software and websites for Myanmar users, you have to count now with a broad scope of configurations.
In March 2013, visitors from Myanmar took third place in the ranking of countries, after the US and Singapore, which are probably the two prime countries for long-term and short-term migrants from Myanmar respectively. 3
It is clear that I must not forget the actual target group – migrant workers and refugees – and people inside Myanmar where high-end devices are often not affordable or available, especially outside the urban areas.
The final output is naturally still a work in progress, and many words have not completely survived the migration from Win Burmese to Unicode and need to be corrected manually. Particularly the question which font is recommended seems to vary considerably depending on operating system and browser. I therefore decided to add a dedicated page where even inexperienced users can check which fonts are available on their computers and share their experiences with others.
Further details of the development:
- As a result of using Unicode, the search field can now contain English or Myanmar regardless of the search direction. That means that either users need to be advised to correct a wrong direction, or this change is being made automatically (based on the first character). The extreme alternative would be to entirely remove the switch for the search direction. I am, however, hesitant to remove all manual overrides.
- It may be misleading that the domain names are burmese-dictionary.org and myanmar-dictionary.org which may insinuate that the names “Burmese” and “Myanmar” have something to do with the fonts, while actually these words simply denote a stylistic difference and they were picked rather as a matter of coincidence.
- Due to limited time and capacity, I have not increased the linguistic quality of the vocabulary or its representation. Anyway, this dictionary is a hybrid involving crowdsourcing and it would be difficult to enforce higher standards.
- HTC has announced a phone with pre-installed Myanmar fonts. This would be helpful to use Myanmar text without having to jailbreak or root the device. I could not get hold of any further information about HTC’s device (price, availability, features) – if you know anything please leave a comment.