This is a test . . . in Hindi

This is a test. I’m going to try to put some Devanagari text containing a couple of Hindi sentences into this post. I have it working in Microsoft Word. Let’s see if it works here.

नमस्ते । मैं जेफ हूँ । क़्य आप हिन्दुस्तनी हैं?

Yes. That did seem to work very well! (For those of you out there who disparage Windows and Microsoft, you’ll get no complaints out of me for the phenomenal internationalization work they’ve put into their products. Out of the box, Windows XP will display South Asian text and any other Unicode text. And with just a few adjustments, I was able to enter the rather complex typescript above.)

Why is this important? In February I started learning Hindi and the Devanagari script that it and a few other languages use–much like how various European languages use the Latin alphabet. Earlier today Lisa and I wrote a mid-year letter telling everyone about our trip, and I included some Hindi place names in it.

Devanagari is a fascinating script. It has nineteen consonant symbols, eleven independent vowels, and eleven dependent vowel signs. To write a word in Devanagari you draw the consonant symbol, which has an inherent “a” sound, and then change the vowel sound by writing a dependent vowel sign near the consonant. The independent vowel symbols are written when a word begins with a vowel. There are no uppercase or lowercase letters, but there are additional symbols for nasalizing a vowel sound. When you consider that consonants without an intervening vowel sound–such as “st” (स्त) in the word “namaste” (नमस्ते)–have a special “conjunct” symbol, it’s easy to see how hard it would be to make a computer representation of the script containing all of the possible symbols.

But it turns out that it’s rather straightforward to work with Hindi in Windows. The mechanism is ingenious: Using the standard input method, as you type on the keyboard, characters change. For example, you might type the symbol for the “t” sound and then add the dependent vowel to it. Poof! The two letters are rewritten. Or, to make the “स्त”, you would type the symbol “स”, press a special “conjoin” key, and then type the “त” symbol. Poof! They’re joined. Etc.

Language Bar(By the way, to enter Hindi and English text together, Windows provides a “language bar” to facilitate switching input methods.)

All this is rather cumbersome for the nonnative writer, though. Remembering where specific symbols on a “strange” keyboard live is tricky . . . even with the help of the “On-Screen Keyboard” utility.

Enter the Hindi Indic IME (Input Method Editor). This Microsoft utility transliterates “English” text that you enter into Hindi text, with the proper vowel signs, dots, and conjuncts formed as you type the transliterated word.

For example, to type the phrase “वह लर्क हिन्दुस्तनी नहीं है”, I only had to type “vah larka hindustanee nahi hai” . . . which is pretty much how I would say it, too!

It’s worth noting — as I can see now at work — that the support for “complex” fonts is quite dependent on the application. For example on my office machine, IE 6.0 (2005) shows everything correctly including conjoined letters, Netscape 7.1 (2003) displays Hindi characters but doesn’t conjoin them (showing a “halant” instead), and Abilon (a very good news aggregator) doesn’t show the Hindi at all.

For example:
Hindi text in IE
(Internet Explorer 6.0)

Hindi text in IE
(Netscape 7.1)

Now that I look at the text closely, the text isn’t even correct in Netscape. The anuswar (dot) gets lost on मैं (“main”) and हैं (“hain”), and the “i” vowel is incorrectly rendered on “हि”.

I guess it’s finally time to upgrade to a later version of Netscape/Mozilla. No, Netscape 8.0 has the same problem. Alright, enough Netscape bashing. Netscape 7.1 looks okay at home. Clearly there’s a bug in Netscape that only shows itself with the “out-of-the-box” Windows XP support for Indic type. Installing the “complex language” features in Windows seems to resolve this issue.

I’m sad to say that MATLAB doesn’t support entering (or even pasting) Hindi text.

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