On Thokks who don't give a Frigg, under the mistletoe

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/11/04 16:55 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/11/04/961822.aspx

I was thinking about Balder yesterday.

Balder is a fascinating character in Norse mythology, and a good description of the most important legend surrounding him can be seen here:

Apart from this gushing description Balder is known primarily for the myth surrounding his death. His death is seen as the first in the chain of events which will ultimately lead to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarok. Balder will be reborn in the new world, however, as foretold in the Völuspá.

He had a dream of his own death (or his mother had the same dreams). Since dreams were usually prophetic, this depressed him, and his mother Frigg made every object on earth vow never to hurt Balder. All but one, an insignificant weed called the mistletoe, made this vow. Frigg had thought it too unimportant and nonthreatening to bother asking it to make the vow (alternatively, it seemed too young to swear). When Loki, the mischief-maker, heard of this, he made a magical spear from this plant (in some later versions, an arrow). He hurried to the place where the gods were indulging in their new pastime of hurling objects at Balder, which would bounce off without harming him. Loki gave the spear to Balder's brother, the blind god Höðr, who then inadvertently killed his brother with it. For this act, Odin and Rind had a child named Váli, who was born solely to punish Höðr, who was slain.


Upon Frigg's entreaties, delivered through the messenger Hermod, Hela promised to release Balder from the underworld if all objects alive and dead would weep for him. And all did, except a giantess, Thokk, who refused to mourn the slain god. And thus Balder had to remain in the underworld, not to emerge until after Ragnarok, when he and his brother Höðr would be reconciled and rule the new earth together with Thor's sons.

It is quite a thing to imagine trying to talk to every living being and non-living object in the world to try and get everyone to agree on a single point. And the story actually has two different failures of such huge efforts -- once by (knowingly or unknowingly) ignoring a single representative and the other by finding someone who simply did not agree.

I thought of the story after a recent conversation on The Unicode List, when Dheeraj Kumar made an important point that I wanted to talk about a little bit:

I want to point out some fundamental differences between the developing world and the developed world. The approach of waiting for proposals may have worked in the developed world but it'll not work in the developing parts. Here, the Governments face many challenges like the lack of provision for safe drinking water, etc. and the universities aren't exactly famous for their initiative. In such a context, who will come up proposals for a standard which will be used by all and which particularly benefits large corporations?

I am not against large corporations but against a standardization approach which isn't proactive. Sooner or later, private individuals will address the need for computing in the languages not in the Unicode standard and much data will be locked in proprietary formats.

I'd like to suggest that perhaps the large corporations sponsoring the Unicode Consortium could fund initiatives for making the standard more encompassing as they stand to lose whenever non-Unicode approaches become predominant. I guess I have seen TTF fonts for Manipuri and  publishing programs for Sindhi, Kashmiri, Hazargi, etc.I also recall a visit to a printing-press where some missionaries were getting some materials printed in a very minor script used in North-Eastern India. I am sure the materials hadn't been typeset in InDesign or Quark or MS Publisher or Corel Draw or any product brought out by a major corporation.

Established corporations stand to gain the most by making the standard more encompassing and they better fund private enterprise in this process or they'll lose out to local competitors.

Thanks & best regards,

Dheeraj Kumar

Now everything stated is very true, but there is another side to it all, and that is what I wanted to talk about.

For example, the work that Microsoft has done for languages like Tamil, work done by extensive consultation with language and typography experts from Tamil Nadu, trying hard to make sure the representation of the language would be able to be acceptable.

From a timing perspective, I believe Tamil is one of the two languages from South Asia supported first (Hindi being the other), and neither the work that Microsoft did nor the earlier work that Unicode did happened without the consultation with local and other experts.

However, as the issues I have talking about in posts like Tamil is an abugida. It is not an abugi-DOH!, if you know what I mean and And if your language starts playing a different TUNE and A syllabary does not need to be encoded as one and Can you name that TUNE? and And we are the knights who say நீ (NII) and At the TONE, it will not be TUNE, but TANE, and the ways that some have reacted, another factor becomes quite clear, one that Dheeraj does not mention.

It is also a problem I have seen when trying to talk to the folks working on the TANE effort.

That factor is that when the first wave of the champions of a language work with international standards bodies and with corporations, that those efforts are either not respected or indeed are severely repudiated by the waves that follow.

By people who are blinded to the notion that at its heart, the work to encode the remaining living and dead and even fictional languages that need to be encoded is proceeding apace and that it is not being done as one-sided initiatives of standards organizations and corporations that give no credence to the opinions of those to whom the script is most dear. What is happening is that the most forward looking of those within a language are also not being given heed, either. They are considered shills of rival governments or corporations or standards bodies (or sometimes all three!).

So if standards bodies and corporations are accused even now of ignoring the needs of language experts in their efforts to standardize and implement the scripts needed by the languages of the world -- when it is not even true! -- how much worse and damaging will those accusations be if they turned out to be true by spending less time trying to engage with language communities. If the effort to span the digital divide is done with no regard for the languages that need to be able to cross that divide.

How much less likely is that language communities will accept the overtures and go with their own private non-Unicode solutions?

I guess in the end the answer is that there is no way to be as impressive and Frigg and have someone go to every single person who uses a given script and get them to approve of the way that it is encoded in Unicode. Because (a) there will always be mistletoe so it is impossible to reach everybody significant to the issue and (b) in the end there will always someone like the giantess Thokk who disagrees about the best way to do it.

In the meantime, I will keep posting about the work within Unicode and Microsoft to capture all of the scripts that are in use in the world in either living or dead languages, and hope that there are fewer  "Thokks who don't give a Frigg, under the mistletoe" about it all. :-)


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goetter on 24 Nov 2006 3:27 PM:

Nice metaphor.  There are certainly situations in any standardization process that suggest the machinations of Loki, the lie-maker, the strife-father.

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