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Microsoft to roll out Inuktitut software upgrades

“It had never been done before. It’s ground zero”

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

JOHN THOMPSON

Firing off emails, writing memos and doing other tasks on the computer in Inuktitut is about to become much easier, thanks to free software upgrade coming soon for Microsoft Windows and the MS Office suite of software.

The Inuktitut “language packs” will only offer roman orthography, so Inuit accustomed to reading syllabics will need to wait for a forthcoming project, and the upcoming edition of Windows Vista, to be released in early 2007.

Still, the launch of the upgrades for Windows XP and Office 2003, expected to happen in about a month, marks a big milestone for Inuktitut computing, says Gavin Nesbitt of Iqaluit’s Pirurvik Centre, a language and culture consultancy contracted by Microsoft to translate the two programs into Inuktitut.

Nesbitt, who coordinated the project over the last year and a half, with the help of a dozen translators, said he has high hopes the release will bring Inuktitut one step closer towards being the language of government in Nunavut, as well as encouraging its use in schools.

“This could be an extremely powerful thing,” he said during an interview last Tuesday.

Nesbitt describes the language packs as like a new skin wrapped around the existing Windows and Office programs, giving them new Inuktitut faces for almost every pull-down menu and pop-up prompt.

Work began in the summer of 2004, with workshops held with computer users, elders and language authorities. That produced 2,000 Inuktitut computing terms.

Then, from January until June of 2005, came the translation of MS Office. That project was the most time-consuming because of a steep learning curve involved, and the complex menus in each application, which all needed to be translated consistently, said Nesbitt.

“It had never been done before. It’s ground zero,” said Nesbitt.

Most recently, they worked on Windows XP from January until June this year.

Any future translations, such as plans for an Inuktitut syllabics language pack for the future version of Windows and Office, will be much easier, Nesbitt said, now the groundwork has been laid, because much of the existing vocabulary can be recycled.

“The words are there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of converting them to syllabics, and editing and proofing it.”

The real test will come when government workers begin using the language packs.

“You can have all the workshops in the world, but if people don’t use the words, it’s kind of useless.”

The Government of Nunavut is testing the language packs before it’s widely installed on government computers, with the goal of a big roll-out sometime before the end of this fiscal year, said Stephane Cloutier, director of official languages in the department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth.

Glossaries of the new computing terms will be prepared to help government workers adjust to the changes, Cloutier said.

However, Nesbitt said Inuktitut-speaking computer users may in fact have an easier time understanding their new words than English speaking users do with their native computer jargon.

Meanwhile, some Inuktitut translations in Windows XP are already available, with an Inuktitut “locale” available on updated versions of the operating system. Turn that option on, and parts of Windows, such as the days of the week, will appear in Inuktitut.

This all means that Inuktitut computing has taken big strides over the last five years, Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt credits the hard work done by the translators, who include Leena Evic, Jeela Palluq, Eva Aariak, Naimee Kilabuk-Bourassa, Kataisee Attagutsiak, Mark Kalluak, Ooleepika Ikkidluak, Aaju Peter, Meeka Arnakaq, Mary Arnakaq, Naullaq Arnaquq and Okalik Eegeesiak.

“They really put their heart and soul in it,” Nesbitt said.

Other than the Inuktitut translation project, the Pirurvik Centre is also sharing what they learned developing tools to support Inuktitut on the computer with a Guatemalan group called Enlace Quiché, who had begun their own work to preserve their Mayan indigenous language, K’iche, which has over one million speakers in Central America.

Recently the Pirurvik Centre received funding through an arm of the United Nations to help Enlace Quiché develop literacy tools, to teach rural farmers how to read with the help of computers.

And during the summer a representative from Enlace Quiché visited Toronto and Ottawa to learn first-hand how to develop these language tools.

“I think everybody’s on board to make this happen,” Nesbitt said.

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