Solving the Legacy-Encoding Debacle with On-line Transliteration

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. John Paolillo

    Indiana University, Bloomington

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Solving the Legacy-Encoding Debacle with On-line


Indiana University


University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia




Kretzschmar, Jr.



Non-roman scripts have always faced severe challenges in computer applications.
Early challenges concerned the lack of non-roman support in ASCII. Today,
Unicode provides or promises to provide support for almost all non-roman
scripts. But Unicode support is not widespread in many languages, for example in
the languages of South and Southeast Asia. In the last decade, the international
expansion of the World-Wide Web caused demand for non-roman text encodings to
rise faster than Unicode development could proceed. The consequent void was
filled in many cases by ad-hoc 8-bit font encodings. While these encodings lack
many of Unicode’s advantages, they allowed many South Asian websites, especially
newspaper companies, to establish a native-language web presence. Now they are
firmly established in use: hundreds of web sites use special 8-bit encodings,
with new material being added every day. These encodings are thus likely to be
widely used for some time, even if Unicode support grows. In addition, many
materials encoded in these forms are now legacy materials, and continued access
to them is required for historical and other studies [Baker, et al., 2000].
These 8-bit encodings have many well-known problems, the most salient of which is
the large number of alternative encoding schemes. Languages such as Sinhala or
Tamil have three or four widely-used encodings, and Hindi has six or more. Few
of these encodings reflect local, regional or international standardization
efforts. Numerous fonts are required for display, and words are not likely to
match across any two texts, seriously hampering efforts to search or index the
documents. For example, when different newspapers use different font-based
encodings to post stories on the same current events, the keywords for those
stories will not match. Users searching for those stories must search separately
for pages in each of the relevant encodings, or else fail to find them entirely.
Many opportunities for humanistic, literary and linguistic research are
encumbered by this situation. Unicode alone cannot solve these problems:
conversion methods are needed to reconcile the variant text encodings.
This poster presents a general solution for these problems in the from of a
protocol for transliterating variant text encodings of a language. The design of
the protocol employs conversion tables for each supported encoding written in
XML. Websites presenting materials in 8-bit encodings would publish such a
conversion table where it can be readily retrieved by browsers and search
engines. On the application side, the conversion tables are compiled by a
general transliteration program into finite state transducers. When the encoded
text is encountered, the transliterator is invoked to convert the encoding into
one that can be used for indexing or display. Font detection is supported so
that multilingual pages are handled appropriately, converting only that portion
of the text in a document whose encoding requires it.
The transliterator may be used in any context where it is required. Search
engines can select a conversion target for all web pages in a given language,
e.g. Unicode, which would then be correctly indexed alongside other languages.
Similarly, browsers could convert the encoding of a web page into one for which
there is an available font, or convert a romanized query input into a suitable
representation to be matched by a search engine, etc. Application software
equipped to handle this protocol, whether web browsers, search engines, text
editors or anything else, need only know the location of the conversion table
for each encoding.
The transliteration program is based on the notion of a graphic template, which
permits even highly complex alpha-syllabic Brahmi-based South Asian scripts to
be efficiently transliterated. A graphic template is used instead of, e.g.
phonetic representations, because it simplifies the many-to-many relations among
script elements and their phonetic representation. Additionally, non-programmers
and non-specialists can modify a conversion table more readily if its elements
refer to graphic elements, rather than to phones or phonemes, which require
specialized linguistic knowledge to appreciate. Graphic templates are finitely
bounded, and hence can be parsed efficiently using finite state transducers,
which are readily written in rule form [Antworth, 1990], hence, the conversion
table is a list of finite state rules. The graphic template functions as an
interlingual representation for the transliterator, meaning that bi-directional
conversions between any two variant encodings can be realized by providing a
suitable conversion table for each encoding. Roman transliterations are easily
incorporated into the same framework, meaning that the protocol can used in
additional ways for research purposes.
A working prototype transliterator written in SWI-Prolog will be demonstrated in
several deployment scenarios: as a reading interface for several South Asian
Language websites, in an interactive editor for text, and in an index and a
query interface for a search engine. These scenarios illustrate the diversity of
applications of the transliterator, as well as its ease-of-use and efficiency.
It is hoped that widespread adoption of this system will facilitate the use of
non-roman text for scholars and non-scholars alike.



PC-KIMMO: A Two-Level Processor for Morphological

Dallas, Texas
Summer Institute of Linguistics






Mapping multiple South Asian 8-bit character sets to
the Unicode standard

Linguistic Exploration: Workshop on Web-Based Language
Documentation and Description

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Institute for Research on Cognitive Science, University
of Pennsylvania

Unicode Consortium

The Unicode Standard
Version 3.0

New York, New York
Addison-Wesley Longman

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info

In review

"Web X: A Decade of the World Wide Web"

Hosted at University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia, United States

May 29, 2003 - June 2, 2003

83 works by 132 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (23), ALLC/EADH (30), ACH/ALLC (15)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None