Venda gets its own keymap

Published in Tectonic

South African Police Services language practitioner Shumani Nevhulaudzi is a woman of many words. In fact, she can speak all 11 official South African languages.

Even though Nevhulaudzi is computer literate, word-processing can be a frustrating experience. This is because Venda, her first language, uses diacritic characters that are not easily accessible using standard keyboard mappings and fonts.

“When the language is not spelt correctly because of insufficient characters, it becomes an insult to the language itself,” says Nevhulaudzi.

Nevhulaudzi volunteered to work on the “keyboard translation” of Venda, part of an initiative currently run by NGO to produce a multilingual keyboard mapping that supports all South African languages.

Director of, Dwayne Bailey, explains that there are three factors in representing the correct characters while typing.

“We talk about character encoding, font glyphs and the keyboard,” says Bailey.

Characters are encoded in character sets. The best-known character set is ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), but the international standard today is Unicode, a character set that aims to cover all the world’s languages, and then some. (Apparently, the elvish scripts Tengwar and Cirth from the J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are even under consideration.)

Font designers choose to support particular characters and represent them using a collection of font glyphs — the symbols that together constitute a font character. The public domain DejaVu font supports Venda characters, but others — like Times New Roman — do not.

The final component is the hardware — usually a standard US keyboard in South Africa — and the keyboard mapping that links the press of a button to a particular character code. By encoding specific key combinations in a customised keyboard mapping, Bailey and his team have developed keyboards that support the fairly rare diacritic characters used by languages such as Venda.

Bailey says that a similar initiative for a multilingual keyboard has proved successful in Nigeria, where the conventional keyboard was extended to include all the characters of the dominant language.

Bailey adds that there will be different keyboard layout options to suit different types of users, from beginners to more advanced touch typists who are more familiar with their way around the keyboard.

“A lot of people in the African arena are busy discussing the translation of the keyboard — including the Department of Communication and the CSIR [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research],” says Bailey.

University of Cape Town Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, who sits on the Tshivenda Lexicographic Board and works with, says that although the project “has been a success”, using the multilingual keyboard still poses challenges.

“This is because you have to often press two keys at the same time for one character,” he says. “So people must not expect a standard keyboard.”

The mappings are released under GPL and are available for Windows 2000 and greater. The installation guide and links to the keyboards are available here.