The phrase “user community” is often employed in academic and government circles to describe the people who use a language, whether spoken or written. It sounds very clear and authoritative, but the truth is…well, as they say in romantic comedies, it’s complicated.
For one thing, it implies this hypothetical group of people use this script and no other, which is far from true: outside the Americas and Europe, most people know and/or use more than one script, sometimes three or four. Each has a different purpose, and often a different status; each connects to different communities.
For another—and we’re coming to the point, here—it implies that the script exists, like, say, a bus network, and people use it. But in fact the people who use a script, or a spoken language, use it in their own ways for their own purposes. A bus system is usually planned and implemented by a municipal authority of some kind, which would not take kindly to passengers commandeering the buses and driving them off to neighborhood not served by the network. Likewise, any government, national or local, that tries to introduce, rationalize, modernize or in any other way tell the user community what to do with its writing system is likely to have a bumpy ride.
No country has spent as much time and energy in script engineering than China, and no script better illustrates the power of the user community than the New Tai Lue script, used mainly in Yunnan Province.
Let’s back up a little. The Tai scripts, like the Tai people (not to be confused with the Thai script or the Thai people) are to be found throughout Southeast Asia, with the early versions of the script developing, over the centuries, their own variations in Tai communities in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and China (where “Tai” is typically written as “Dai”).
The formation of the People’s Republic led to various efforts to unify the vast and diverse country, one of which was to try to make the new nation’s minority scripts more consistent (the Yi script was especially troubling, almost bolshie, in its many local variants), and in the 1950s the government introduced and promoted a new version of the Tai Lue script, which by then had been in use for perhaps 800 years.
The effort involved was considerable. “From 1950s,” says the official account, “a great number of books, magazines and newspapers in Dai language have been published. It is also used in school education.”
Things can’t have been going all that smoothly, though, because in the 1980s the government modified its position and allowed the New Tai Lue user community (perhaps better described as the Tai Lue user community or the New Tai Lue non-user community) to choose whether to use the old, familiar Tai Lue or the new, approved New Tai Lue.
The user community, by all accounts, voted with their linguistic feet and abandoned New Tai Lue in droves. “The new script is used exclusively in Jinghong,” observes Omniglot, “so could be called the New Jinghong Tai Lue script, and is used for shop and street signs. Few people can read it.”
That may sound like the end of the story, but the user community had by no means finished using its own script however it saw fit.
By 2005, New Tai Lue had been encoded in the Unicode standard, though over the next decade it saw very little use, as might be expected. What use it did see, however, was entirely in line with the subversive practices of the Tai Lue user community—that is, they began to ignore the Unicode standard and invent their own forms of coding.
“[T]he only use from Chinese users in Xisuangbanna,” complains a Unicode report, “has been either using legacy encoded fonts or using a Unicode font where the behaviour is such that the reordering characters are stored in visual order. For example http://www.dw12.com is a news site using fonts with such an encoding,” a practice the report calls playing “fast and loose with Unicode, producing fonts that don’t conform to the Unicode standard while using its codepoints,” messing with the ordering of prevowels and consonants and otherwise hijacking the buses.
“So why do we need to do anything about New Tai Lue? The reason for concern is that such user communities have inadvertently produced a fork of Unicode that, unlike for other scripts, could well stick. We are in a position now where users of New Tai Lue have to decide whether to stick with the Unicode Standard as specified or follow the community in its modified encoding model.”
As this profile goes to press, I have no idea where the Unicode situation stands, and given my limited knowledge of coding I doubt I would understand if anyone were kind enough to explain it to me. One thing, though, is clear: a user community is always likely to be a diverse group with multiple perspectives (in favor of emoji? Hate them?), and anyone who wants to tell them how to behave had better bring an army. Which, sadly, happens a lot more often than we’d like to think.
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