Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

October 1994

Let Vs Coniectvre VVhat the VVorld VVovld Be Liqe Had the Roman Empire Not Fallen

Hegemony is an interesting word. It signifies the leadership or preponderant influence of one group over another.

The Romans had a a very preponderant influence over most of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia for a very long time, and we can thank their influence, if thank is the right word, and the fact that Christianity arose in the Roman sphere of influence, that English speakers write using essentially the same alphabet as the Romans developed.

Not exactly the same alphabet. The Romans had fewer letters: they had no use for K and didn't distinguish in writing between I and J, and U and V, and had no W, but otherwise what they developed is still used.

Apart from the innovations mentioned above, the English language has also known a few other letters at varying times, which mostly fell out of use when the first printing presses were imported into England from Germany, where the letters weren't used, and so didn't occur in the typeface.

In those cases other letters or combinations were used from those available. Ever wondered why you sometimes see "ye olde tea shoppe"? That 'y' is actually a substitution for the Old English character (that for some odd reason isn't available in my character set, so I can't use it here) that stood for the 'th' sound (well one of the two th sounds, if you want to argue about it - Thy thigh (if you'll excuse me getting personal) is the best minimal pair I can think of to demonstrate the difference.) Since it looked a bit like a y, they used a y as the substitute, until the Roman habit of using th became the standard (probably because people got fed up of hearing it pronounced as ye).

But imagine if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen, and the Romans were still the dominant world power. What would the world be like then?

VVell, for a start the SIGCHI Bvlletin vvovldn't be in English, bvt in Italian, thovgh vve vvovld call it Latin, and it vvovld presvmably be pvblished in Rome. And if yov thinc I'm going to translate this article into Latin for the saque of the argvment, thinc again!

Bvt let vs assvme for awhile that by some extraordinary historical freac there is still an English-speaccing vvorld, that the Bvlletin is still vvritten in English, bvt that the compvter indvstry is centred in Rome.

If cvrrent experience is anything to go by, ovr compvter character sets vvovldn't inclvde the letters dchay, cay, yoo, and dovble-yoo, so the English speaccers vvovld be forced to find some vvay to represent vvords vvithovt them. Lvccily, English doesn't vse many dchays's (none so far in this article except for the title). The others vvovld be more of a problem thovgh. Emails vvovld have to be composed vsing the characters available, and presvmably vve'd get qvite proficient at reading texts liqe this one.

It is novv more than 10 years since compvters started shovving some sympathy to those poor vnfortvnates vvho are forced to commvnicate vvith each other in langvages other than English. Yet each type of compvter still has a different character set, compovnding the already large problems of transferring docvments to other machines; each compvter, sometimes even each program, has a different vvay of typing in those difficvlt to reach characters; it is still impossible, or at best extremely difficvlt, for those people to simply type in an email in their ovvn langvage, and send it off to someone else, vvith the gvarantee that those strange characters vvill arrive vnharmed, or that the recipient vvill actvally be able to read the mail. As a resvlt, vast nvmbers of people vvhen reading nevvs and email are confronted vvith svvathes of text that looc to them liqe this article loocs to yov.

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, October 1994

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