Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Letters from Home

It was an immigrant, of course -- Carl Schurz, German student revolutionary, soldier in his adopted land, veteran of the carnage at Chancellorsville (the battle Stephen Crane imagined for "The Red Badge of Courage") -- who made the enduring statement of American patriotism: "Our country right or wrong."

The name probably had been Schürze back in the homeland. His country, probably, got his name wrong. But America had no room for umlauts. Losing your native letters was one of the prices of admission to the Land of the Free.

The melting pot always dissolved exotic alphabets. Antonín Dvořák dreamed magic into America with his "New World" symphony, but when his Czech name came to be printed over here, it was stripped of its r-caron. "Dvorak" is not the same name at all, but "Dvorak" he became. Just as the Müllers and Schülzes who sailed from Bremen turned up "Mullers" and "Schultzes" in the directories of Hoboken.

Welcome to America. A twenty-six-letter Latin alphabet, barely sufficient to cover the sound-pattern of everyday English. It's what we got; everyone gets by. Take it or leave it, bud.

It's cultural imperialism. It's bigoted ethnocentrism. It's disrespectful of every tenet of modern multicultural values. And it's what allowed America to happen.

French, German, Swedish, Czech, Irish -- all use the same basic Latin alphabet, but each has a few extra characters suited to itself. They don't cause much trouble at home. But when you pile immigrants from all these places into America, their typographical baggage would swamp the printers. To accomodate all the immigrant languages that used variations of the Latin alphabet, they'd have to work from trays of close to 600 characters. And then as many again for italics. And that doesn't even begin to deal with Greek, Russian, and Hebrew.

Instead, we kept it simple. Everyone lost something, and everyone chipped in to the common culture. Americans learned some science from Anders Ångström, but they left his quirky Scandinavian vowels out of it. We took the Spanish names for the landscape features of the West, like cañon, but not the n-tilde. Why, even the haughty French -- Le Français willingly submitted to the loss of their cédille when they crossed the Atlantic. When Vietnamese refugees arrived in the 1970s, they lost their lovely horned vowels and wrote in simple American letters.

As did we all. With the whole range of upper case and lower case letters, arabic numerals, basic ligatures, punctuation marks, and spaces, the Monotype machine used extensively for newspaper and book typesetting in the early 20th century had a mere 255 characters. With that, the vast literature and popular press that drove the engines of democracy churned out their work.

When computers were born, the extended ASCII set, in use after 1980, offered a mere 256. Given the restrictions of early bitmapping and the requirements of coding, it's possible that the modern computer never would have been developed in a culture with an overly elaborate alphabet system. It certainly wouldn't have happened in an America that needed 600 letters just to say anything.

When the Internet became a worldwide phenomenon, then, of course, the cries of typographical imperialism arose. The neglect of all those other cultural markers in the computer keyboards was a sign of what makes America so infuriating to non-Americans -- and of what makes it work.

For by then the system -- the one whose birth probably required a stripped-down alphabet -- had grown robust enough to rise to the challenge. The latest Unicode that I'm aware of defines 96,382 characters. Enough for the whole world.

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