Publication Details

McLelland, M. (2017). Early challenges to multilingualism on the Internet: the case of Han character-based scripts. Internet Histories: Digital Technology, Culture and Society, 1 (1-2), 119-128.


In today's hyper-mediated world where computer software can deal seamlessly with a variety of the world's languages and scripts, it is difficult to recall the seemingly insurmountable computing problems raised by "Han" character-based scripts such as Chinese, Japanese (and to a lesser extent, Korean). In the early days of networked computing, some commentators even argued that the continued use of Han characters was a lost cause, and could only result in "intolerable inefficiencies" when used to communicate digital information. In this paper, I consider the orthographic factors that delayed the implementation of cross-platform protocols allowing for the input, display and transmission of character-based scripts across early computer networks (mid-1980s to mid-1990s). I note how Anglophone Internet histories have been largely oblivious to the inherent biases of Internet infrastructure that were built by programmers using ASCII (based on the limited range of characters provided by the Roman alphabet) who also assumed the QWERTY keyboard to be the obvious human-machine interface. Instead of stressing the deficiencies of character-based scripts, I invite the reader to consider how the Internet might look today had it not been founded upon assumptions based on Anglophone usage, and consider the potentialities of a non-phonetic character-based writing system.

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