Thursday, June 30, 2022

Working with Local Communities to Revitalize and Preserve Indigenous Languages in Canada

By Kevin King, Typotheque

The Typotheque Syllabics Project, an initiative based out of Toronto and The Hague, Netherlands, undertook research with language keepers across various Syllabics-using Indigenous communities in Canada to document and address both local typographic preferences, as well as technical barriers they faced.

This research contributed to two proposals to amend the Unicode Standard for the Syllabics, which is an important step in the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages.

[Map, Image provided by Typotheque, used with permission.]

The local Indigenous communities were given a voice in reclaiming ownership over the use of their language, as well as the resources for self-determined expression in the writing system that they identify with. By working in collaboration with Nattilik language keepers Nilaulaaq, Janet Tamalik, Attima and Elisabeth Hadlari, and elders in the community, key issues the Nattilik community of Western Nunavut faced were identified, and it was discovered that there were 12 missing syllabic characters from the Unicode Standard. The Nattilik community was unable to use their language reliably for even simple, everyday digital text exchanges such as email or text messaging.

[Syllables Block, Image provided by Typotheque, used with permission.]
The Nattilik Kutaiřřutit (Nattilik special characters), required for representing sounds unique to the Nattilingmiutut dialect of Inuktut.

It was also revealed that the glyphs of the Carrier (Dakelh) community of central British Columbia were incorrectly represented in the UCAS code charts. Additionally, 4 characters for a now-obsolete sp series were successfully proposed to Unicode for representing and digitally-preserving historical texts in the Cree and Ojibway languages. These important alterations meant that all Syllabics typefaces that are fully Unicode-compliant – including system level typefaces on common operating systems – would be capable of accurately and legibly representing text for the Carrier, Sayisi, and Ojibway Syllabics-using communities moving forward.

When the comprehensive glyph set was produced by the project, the results provided not only a stable environment for the local Indigenous communities to use their languages on their devices, but it also changed the standards for the development of all future Syllabics fonts, and ensured that writing systems of all communities will be accurately represented.

[Syllables, Image provided by Typotheque, used with permission.]
Above, a representation of the missing characters for Nattilingmiutut, a dialect of Inuktut in Western Nunavut.

Where to learn more:


Special thanks to Liang Hai, Deborah Anderson, and Sarah Rivera for their contributions to this blog.

Over 144,000 characters are available for adoption to help the Unicode Consortium’s work on digitally disadvantaged languages