Unicode may be popularly known as the group that establishes emoji, but the organization's mission goes far beyond that. Unicode doesn't just standardize smiley faces — it standardizes how all letters and symbols are displayed on computers, smartphones, and so on. It started with the most popular — like the Latin letters you're reading in this sentence — and now Unicode wants to start tackling some of the less prominent languages still used throughout the world.
"If people can't use computers for very simple things, it doesn't help keep their languages alive."
"We're getting to a point with scripts where it takes a lot of time and research to figure out what the characters are for a particular writing system," says Mark Davis, Unicode's president and co-founder. "It's not as simple as handling Arabic or Chinese."
In the over two decades that Unicode has been around, it's encoded around 130 scripts, with each script containing the characters that make up a system of writing. Unicode has identified over 100 more that it would like to get to, but because those scripts aren't as widely used, the organization says it needs more resources to support research into their development.
To get that support, Unicode, a nonprofit, is launching a new fundraising program — a kind of fun one that it hopes will encourage donations from individuals, rather than the large corporate backers who already support its general operations. Starting today, if you donate more than $100 to Unicode, you can temporarily "adopt" one of its characters and get your name listed on its website as a sponsor. So if you have a strong attachment to one emoji or another, now's your chance to prove it.
Only "a handful" of African languages have support
Unicode says that the funds raised through this program will go toward research into what it's calling "digitally disadvantaged" languages. Though each language may be used by a small number of people worldwide, Davis says it's important for Unicode to add support, both for the purpose of preservation and spreading access to computers. "If kids are texting on phones and they can only text in Latin characters, that changes how they feel about their native language," he says. "That goes on all around the world. If people can't use computers for very simple things, it doesn't help keep their languages alive."
Unicode says that it's currently leaving about 40 percent of people around the globe without the ability to digitally communicate in their native language. Only "a handful" of African languages are currently supported, it says.
Most of Unicode's staff is unpaid, so funding will largely be used for travel, allowing researchers to get in touch with local experts. Unicode is also considering creating a smartphone app that would allow people to report information on how languages work. This is something it already provides on the web, but it suspects that by creating a version that doesn't require a constant internet connection, it'll be more accessible to people in areas of the world without widespread access.
Priority is set by what's most achievable
Davis says it takes Unicode about two years of "elapsed time" to develop a single script, since no one person is working full time on it. The organization has no hard figure on how much it costs to develop a new script either, nor does it have a specific order it wants to get to them in. "The priority is a lot of times decided by how easily we can access people or sources about those scripts," he says. Unicode also develops support for the individual languages that use those scripts, supplying information on how they format numbers, which direction they write in, and how certain words are translated, like country names.
Work on disadvantaged languages is something Unicode's members — which include Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — have been "extremely supportive of," Davis says. But the organization is still looking for outside funding to supplement what they provide. "We already ask a lot of our members," Davis says. "They supply us with funding well beyond what they pay in membership fees." That funding covers all of Unicode's general operations, allowing additional funds to be used for its work on less-prominent scripts and languages.
Additional funding may be increasingly necessary to further Unicode's mission. Adding languages is getting "progressively harder" as the group makes its way through languages that aren't as well known. "Until we have enough information about how the characters work, they're useless," Davis says, "you can't put them on computers."