The Internet is no longer in English, even if the coding on its back end still largely is. That’s what MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman has concluded as online language diversity has increased over the past decade, from Facebook posts in Afrikaans to tweets in Zulu. But the typographical design world that brings online text to life has lagged behind, producing endless variations on the Latin script used in English (like the documentary-inspiring Helvetica and the font you’re reading right now, Georgia) but far fewer for other languages.
The result is an increasingly bilingual, but visually clunky, Internet that looks like this:
Google is looking to streamline that with its Noto project (so named for its goal, “no tofu,” a reference to the tiny squares that pop up for unsupported scripts). A new, free font family that “aims to support all the world’s languages” for use in web pages and URLs, Noto already supports over 100 scripts (and the 600 written languages they facilitate) from Cherokee to cuneiform. Some of the project’s efforts have been applauded, such as their rejection of Han unification, which detrimentally conflates chunks of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts.
Noto’s inclusion of endangered languages like Inuktitut (an indigenous Canadian languages which has under 40,000 speakers) and Tlingit (an Alaska Native language with just about 1,000 speakers) has also won praise. But since Noto has thus far failed to tackle far more widely-used languages, some are questioning Google’s priorities. For instance, Noto cannot yet be used to type in Oriya, an Indian language with over 30 million speakers, or the nastaliq script used by Urdu speakers.
Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani-American writer campaigning for the online inclusion of nastaliq, has summarized concerns with Noto by saying, “Language is the building block of people’s identities all around the world, and Google is basically saying that, ‘We got this.’ …Whether that strikes you as hubris or whether it’s noble depends on whether they pull it off.”
When it comes to hubris, Google can learn from its own past exploits, as Kevin Roose recounts Google’s struggle to design a suitable universal font for its Android products. The main challenge, Roose notes, is that “unlike most innovations in computing, typeface design doesn’t succeed by grabbing your eye.” Writing all the world’s languages in one style is challenging enough, but doing it in a way that looks good across the Internet—no matter what size screen, or with what resolution, it is accessed—compounds the design challenge.
Noto won’t turn the web’s words uniform overnight. But it is a sign of a permanently multilingual Internet, and the challenges of creating a truly global product.