Purloined alphabets. Anachronistic throwbacks. Superior input. The dignity of language. And Maren....

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2010/05/01 07:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2010/05/01/9993575.aspx

So thinking back to the other day, after I wrote Learning to spell in Bengali (when one has a cool input method), Kathleen Barowski commented:

There is one for Arabic as well out of Microsoft Egypt - Microsoft Maren see http://www.microsoft.com/middleeast/egypt/cmic/maren/

Too late for me as I learned to type Arabic years ago but useful for others learning or simply wanting a shortcut.

I can only type one word in Arabic, on the Arabic-101 keyboard, and it isn't really the most useful of all possible words in the world.

It was the word I typed into the console at the console training, for prople who are at Microsoft who were there - if you speak Arabic. But it is not a nice out-loud word.

Now as it happens, in my inbox was another note about Maren. and then just a few days ago a tester I used to work with (Ihab Abdelhalim) sent me a third mail talking about Maren:

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to email you about Microsoft Maren, which is a bit of old news by now. It is essentially a fancy IME that takes transliterated Arabic and turns it into actual Arabic. It understands common conventions/variants like using 3 to refer to “ain” (U+0639), and also provides suggestions. I use English for all of my communication so this isn’t a big “feature” for me, but I just found it pretty interesting J.

I figured I should mention that Maren is out there, what with all these people mentioning it to me. Especially given my own limited abilities in this area!

Now although I do at this point have a little bit of a specific expertise in Arabic the script (as I previously hinted in Hello Madda, Hello Father (Iranian style), the truth is that I know very little of Arabic the language.

I do know that one word very well. But mostly that is it.

It leads to odd conversations where I can speak with authority about letters from Feh to Yeh across many languages, yet knowing very little about the language with the same name as the script all these language use. Including comments with Uyghur experts, some of the younger who denied and some of the older who agreed about the Purloined Alphabet orthographic changes -- some people expressing outright shock that I had not learned any of the languages yet. :-)

Which is not to say that Arabic isn't important. Just the other day (ref: Microsoft, Google eye Arabic web growth potential), Chief Research & Strategy Officer Craig Mundie mentioned:

(Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer and I a few years ago talked and believed Arabic would be an increasingly important language

And the article itself went on to state something interesting that makes me think knowing more Arabic might not be a bad thing:

Arabic content is less than 1 percent of world totals though speakers constituting 5 percent of the global population.

Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of describing why I can't speak both impressively and authoritatively about Maren, I can only say that several others who have taken a look (some of who I have a lot respect for!) have expressed interest.

I can also point to their blog, which unfortunately seems to have stopped after just a few posts:

Of course I came back in this blog, so they may come back too at some point -- I'm not assuming they are done for good even if they aren't blogging; like me they likely have actual jobs beyond writing blogs, too.

There is a lot of interest these days in the piss-poor story that standard keyboards give so many different languages, and the many efforts to try and improve that story are something I wholeheartedly welcome (there are times I wish I was on the tools team that took over MSKLC since our original v.Next version of that tool included a means to create such input methods directly, though since those plans kind of evaporated not too long after I left -- and they still haven't shipped a new one -- I suppose it is just as well I didn't see said evaporation up close, it would have been much more frustrating!).

There are so many languages for which regular keyboards are barely adequate anachronistic throwbacks to a time that the languages sat on old manual keyboards, and the struggle to think beyond that paradigm is one that has been a long time coming.

My hope is to see some of this built into the platform and made available to even more people, and in the meantime the more I see of it, the better.

Language needs to be free, and the best way to make it so is to not stunt the input of language through input methods that are unworthy of the dignity of the languages they nominally "cover".

So anyway, if you know Arabic, then give Microsoft Maren a try, and let me know what you think!

Mostafa Ashour on 4 May 2010 8:44 AM:

I am the program manager for Maren. Let me share a thought about those writing conventions. The phenomena of typing Arabic using roman character has evolved in the mid-1990's. In this period of time, typing Arabic script on you PC was really problematic. There were lots of technical difficulties that prevented Arabic PC users from typing their native script. So these users had to come up with a way to type Arabic using the English keyboard which lead to the evolution of an ad-hoc convention for typing Arabic using Roman characters. The convention evolved with time and became of common use today among Arabic youth where it assumed multiple names like Arabizi, Franco-Arabic and Arabish.

Maren was not positioned as an Arabic keyboard replacement but rather a tool that helps users who are not familiar with one (quite a large percentage) to easily type Arabic.

After the release of Maren we have discovered that the same phenomenon exists in a number of other languages (probably due to the same technical reasons above). The languages include Greek, Indic, Urdu, Russian, Hebrew and Farsi.

-- Mostafa Ashour

Michael S. Kaplan on 4 May 2010 5:23 PM:

We also have a huge[-ish] scenario around non-native speakers of a language using such input methods as their primary keyboards in many cases....

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