INTERVIEW: Michael Everson Publisher and Owner of Evertype

On November 27, the annual Google festival Devfest was held in Tbilisi in Tech Park Georgia, with the key theme of adding the Georgian alphabet ‘Asmotavruli’ to Unicode.

GEORGIA TODAY interviewed special guest of Devfest Tbilisi 2016, Michael Everson, who is an American and Irish linguist, script encoder, typesetter, font designer, and publisher. His central area of expertise is writing systems of the world and he is considered an expert in computer encoding of scripts.

What prompted you to visit Georgia this year?

There is a problem in Georgian computing and I'm trying to work with Georgians to help fix it. The problem itself was identified year ago when the Georgians applied for the Georgian script to be added to Unicode but found the people in the Unicode technical committee either reluctant or cautious to add the characters. I’m pretty sure this is because they don’t quite understand the nature of the problem. The Devfest 2016 was an opportunity for me to meet a number of people in the technical world and also the Minister of Education.

What was the main problem?

The main problem is that ‘Asomtavruli’ is not reliably accessible on computers. There is no standard way of doing it and in our opinion the reason is that Georgian is a casing script no different from Latin or Cyrillic- it has capital letters which are called ‘Mtavruli’ and it has lower-case letters which are called ‘Mkhedruli’. The difference between Georgian and other casing alphabets, which also includes Armenian, Greek and others, is that the rule for spelling that we have in English for instance is: "begin your sentence with a capital letter, begin people’s names and city names and things like that with a capital letter" and in Georgian the rule is different. The rule is to use lower case letters all the time, unless you are using capitals letters, in which case ALL the letters in a word have to be with a capital.” That is a spelling rule, while the structure of the script is still casing. The spelling rule differs from other casing alphabets though: we learned that in late 19th century and early 20th century, there were some books that used ‘Mtavruli’ in the way that Russian and English do. I don’t know how many such books there were. In any case, that orthography did not last, so we’ve been trying to explain to the Unicode community that this is a matter of spelling, not a matter of structure.

You’ve been working on the world’s writing systems for 20 years. What do you think is the largest impact of your work?

I’m like a plumber. When you’re building a house a plumber has to come and lay the pipes- and you want the plumber to put the pipes down in the right way. So he lays the pipes and walks away and the house is built and you move in and never spare the plumber another thought (unless something goes wrong!). I'm the plumber of writing systems. Back in the 90s I helped to encode Tibetan- so any Tibetian person who sits at the computer and types today is using some of my work; they don’t know I did it, and probably never will, unless somebody reads a Wikipedia article about me. I’ve always been fascinated with writing systems and it turned out I was good at analyzing them, putting them into proposals and encoding them.

What about future plans, are there any writing systems that need to be included in Unicode?

There is definitely more work to do. For example, in western Africa they are still inventing new writing systems for their languages, some of which are really very good and have been used by many people and some of which are impossibly complicated and I can’t see how anyone can actually take notes. And there is a writing system called ‘Bliss Symbols,’ which can be used by disabled people who can’t speak. We did encode the alphabet for sign language, which represents hand gestures, and that was pretty interesting.

Natia Liparteliani

05 December 2016 18:26