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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil Digital Renaissance > Tamilnet'99 >  Naa Govindasamy

Towards a Total Internet Solution
for the Tamil Language through Singapore Research

by Naa Govindasamy
Lecturer, National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)469,
Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259756

 (This Paper was presented at the SAARC Conference on Extending the Use of Multilingual & Multimedia Information Technology at Pune, India, on September 14, 1998. The present paper has added new developments which took place after September 1998. The author wish to thank Dr Tan Tin Wee, Associate Director for the Centre for Internet Research (CIR), National University of Singapore and Mr Leong Kok Yong, Research Officer of CIR, for giving valuable advice in the preparation of this paper.)

Abstract | The Need for A Multilingual Internet in Singapore | Objective | Prototype Testing, Preview and Official launch | Purpose of this paper | Tamil Internet tools from Singapore | Font encoding | Keying in the Tamil characters in the Forms | Viewing Tamil on PC Terminal Emulation | Keyboard Input Systems | Toward Java keyboard input systems for total cross platform compatibility using Unicode | Future Direction and Conclusion | References 



The internet revolution has enabled the widespread dissemination of information throughout the world. Most of the content is in Romanized characters. Research is going on in some countries to enable non-Roman scripts accessible on the Internet. This paper will discuss and demonstrate how, through a successful research collaboration in Singapore, Tamil language content is now freely accessible, searchable, conveniently emailable and easily composed and edited on the Internet through all three popular platforms Unix, PC and Mac. The important part of this paper is latest development, which took place in Singapore after September 1998. 

  1. Multilingual TextEditor For Unix, Windows and Mac.
    Text is saved in Unicode and Tamilnet code. This is the first Unicode Tamil Editor to be seen on the Internet for free downloading.
  2. Multilingual multiscript URL is another important development in Singapore Research.

My presentation will focus on these two important development.


The Need for A Multilingual Internet in Singapore

Singapore is a multilingual and a multiracial country. English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil are the official languages. Most of the government and public documents are published in these four official languages. However, until recently, it was not possible for the Chinese and Tamil languages to be disseminated through the World Wide Web on the Internet.

In 1994 Dr Tan Tin Wee, my research collaborator initiated work in this area while he was the head of Technet Unit, the first Internet service provider for Research and Educational Institutions in Singapore. Technet Unit was directly under the supervision of the Computer Centre of the National University of Singapore. (Technet Unit has since been commercialised to become Pacific Internet, one of the three ISPs for Singapore. The others are Singnet and Cyberway.) By mid-1994, Technet Unit initiated the Singapore INFOMAP project which provided a one-stop WWW home page for Singapore. He wanted the four official languages to be represented in the INFOMAP.

Since English and Malay are using the Roman script, displaying these two languages on the WEB was not a problem. By the end of 1994, Technet had successfully implemented an Experimental Chinese WEB server in Singapore. So the problem of displaying the Chinese script on the Web was solved. However, displaying Tamil script on the Web, and communicating through Tamil on Internet was a problem. There was no Tamil Information System on the Internet which provides a display system in Tamil and English simultaneously on the Text Mode using a Tamil-English single font file. There were a few servers, which were providing Tamil script using GIF image files.

Tamil Eelam Page (http://www.eelam.com) was and is still very active in this direction. Tamil Nadu Home Page, and Tamil Electronic Library . (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/5180/index.html) are other popular Tamil Web Sites on Internet at that time. Tamil Electronic Library was using (and is still using) a mono 7bit font (Mylai) for the Tamil display on the Web.However, Mylai font cannot support native emailing at that time.

So there was a need to develop a Tamil Internet System which should go beyond Web display. In May 1995, I met Dr Tan at the Technet Unit, National University of Singapore, soon to become the Internet Research and Development Unit (IRDU) (now upgraded to Centre for Internet Research). We identified the potential solutions and agreed for a possible research collaboration between NUS and my institution, NIE, NTU, the two instititutions of higher learning in Singapore at that time.

At that time, on my own, I was in the process of developing True Type fonts and a Tamil software for Windows Applications (Kanian└)└ Tamil Software). As the service provider arm of the Technet was sold to a private consortium and renamed Pacific Internet in September 1995, the nascentTamil Internet Research was inherited by the newly formed Internet Research and Development Unit (IRDU). This Research Unit was funded by the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB ) (http://www.nstb.gov.sg) of Singapore. Mr Leong Kok Yong, just graduated from the Nanyang Technological University, joined IRDU, and became one of the key member for the TamilWEB project.



During the Technet period, when Dr Tan and I, conceptulised the TamilWEB Project. We had a very clear objective.That is:  to develop a bilingual font system for The Total Internet Communication in the Tamil language. That means, the system that we intended to develop:

  1. should provide display of Tamil & English Text simultaneously on the Internet Applications. (Web Browsers & Email sofware packages.)
  2. Tamil and English text should be easily communicated and retrieved in Plain Text.
  3. should work across Platforms. (PC, Mac & Unix)
  4. should be searchable in Tamil
  5. should let the user type Tamil in the Web browser's Forms, and the typed word should be seen in Tamil.
  6. Should allow the user to read Tamil & English in terminal emulation mode (telnet).


Prototype Testing, Preview and Official launch

The prototype of our system was tested during the launch of PoemWEB. PoemWeb  is an electronic selection of representative poems from the four official languages, from the book , Journeys: Words, Home and Nation - Anthology of Singapore Poetry (1984-1995) which was published by The Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore. This book was launched by H.E. Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President, Republic of Singapore on Friday 27 Oct 1995.

The preview of the first phase of TamilWEB project was shown to the public and to the Press at the Internet for Everyone 1995 at Suntec City Exibition Hall during 13 December 1995.  TamilWeb was officially launched by the Honourable Member of Parliament, Dr Ong Chit Chung (Chairman, GPC for Education and MP for Bukit Batok) on 2 February 1996.

Since then the Tamil language teachers in Singapore and the Internet Users from locally and abroad, are using the Singapore System to communicate in Tamil & English over Internet and have created a significant volume of bilingual Web pages in Tamil and English. One of the most important Web site for teaching and learning of Tamil language was created by University of Pennsylvania's Penn Language Center (PLC).

Using our system, the Center created a bilingual Website for Learning and Teaching Tamil in 1996. The project is funded partially by a grant from the Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, with the joint participation of Tamil-teaching faculty at the Universities of Chicago, Cornell, and Pennsylvania. The ruling party of Tamil Nadu Dravida Munneetra Kazhagam (DMK) Website is another important site, using our system. (http://www.thedmk.org)


Purpose of this paper

This paper will try to explain and demonstrate, how Tamil, one of the Indian languages, has achieved the Total Internet Solution, through Singapore Research. Most of my presentation will be done through Internet. When Dr Tan and I conceptualised the TamilWEB project in 1994, there were only two major graphical Web browsers on the Internet, Mosaic and Netscape2. Eudora was the one of the most preferred graphical Email program. PINE was the most preferred, Text-mode Unix Emailer, and LYNX was the Textual Browser on the Unix platform. Font Tagging was not available at that time. Content on the Web was almost exclusively in Romanized characters. English language was dominating the Web. Content in non-Roman languages was limited. With these background, we delivered these Internet Tools for our Tamil users.


Tamil Internet tools from Singapore

 These Internet Tools originating from our research and software development are free for downloading:

  1. TamilNet.ttf (PC propotional font)
  2. TamilFix.ttf (PC fix width font)
  3. Tamilnet.hqx (Mac propotional font)
  4. Tamilfix.hqx (Mac fix width font)
  5. Tamilnet18.bdf (Unix font)
  6. Tamilfix.bdf (Unix Font)
  7. Tamil Keyboard Manager (for PC)
  8. Tamil Keyboard Manager (for Mac)
  9. Xkeymap (Tamil input system for UNIX)
  10. Mirage (CGI Application Software for rendering Multilingual encoding text into GIF images for display on web browser
  11. Applet input sysytem for Tamil word search


Font encoding

The key tool for the project was the creation and design of a Bilingual Tamil-English single font system. We have designed a bilingual font set for the display of both Tamil and English simultaneously. This was done by making use of the upper extended ASCII character range for the Tamil characters, while retaining the basic English alphabet and punctuation intact in the lower ASCII range. This will allow most of the Web world in English (or other Romanized languages) to be traversed; at the same time, Tamil codes will be recognized and displayed correctly when they occur, without having to change font set. Figure below shows the character map for the Tamil-English font set.

One important point to note is that the upper ASCII portion does not have enough code space to include all the possible Tamil character glyphs (>>200). As such, we made use of the kerning feature built into the Postscript and the True-Type font technology to combine two Tamil characters into a new character glyph not found in the above ASCII table.

With the combination of two simpler character glyphs to give a more complex glyph, we can then include the entire Tamil character set within one single font, together with the English alphabet. To allow users to input these Tamil characters, a corresponding keyboard layout mapping has been devised by mapping the keys on a normal English (QWERTY) keyboard to the extended ASCII range where these Tamil characters reside. A toggle key enables the user to switch between the two modes. Tamilnet propotional font was developed to display Tamil & English on the Web browser. However, the variable proportional font cannot be viewed in the Web browser's Forms.

For this purpose, a fixed width font, Tamilfix was developed. This font is very similar to the  courier font. The Tamilfix font is simply doing the work of the Courier font. Only with this fixed width font, Tamil can be typed in the Web browser Forms. In the Web browser, the form filling feature is a very important component for interactivity. If the user wish to communicate in Tamil to webmaster or the author of the webpage, he or she has to type Tamil into the Form.


Keying in the Tamil characters in the Forms

 When the user is keying in Tamil script in the Form, the Tamil Characters should appear on the Forms as they are typed for immediate visual feedback. Only then can meaningful communication and interactivity take place. We achieved this through the Tamilfix font and the keyboard input system. Another important factor in any database creation is the Search function. If a Search function is not possible in a particular system, creating a database, is out of the question. When we launched the TamilWEB on 2.2.1996, we demonstrated the Search function.

In the search form, Tamil words were keyed in for searching against a database of Tamil text. For search and retrieval, the submitted string in extended ASCII for Tamil (and in English as well for bilingual searches) is parsed by the httpd server and submitted as a search string to any indexing engine that has multilingual capability. In the case of Tamil, we used a simple WAIS-SF indexer and demonstrated the utility.

Hits were returned in the same encoding, and displayed in the same way as described above, with bilingual capability. In fact, this powerful search function is taking place across the various platforms. In the Singapore Government Web site ( http://www.gov.sg ), searching for Tamil keywords by typing Tamil script is possible. The I Agent  search engine will deliver the results in the form of webpages, using Singapore Tamil font encoding.

However, in some cases, users are unable to use our fonts and encoding system for unknown reasons. In this situation, we have invented another solution. Our research team has produced a CGI Application software for rendering multilingual encoding text directly into images for display on any web browser as embedded images. It is called Mirage.

When this application is added on to the server, the server is capable of rendering Unicode Tamiltext into images for the client browsers, without any helper application or any font installation. The significance of this system is that, in the client browser, the user should be able to view multilingual information, originally coded using Unicode. For that matter, any encoding can also be transformed into images using the MIRAGE system, eg. Unicode, ISCII, Kanian-Tamilnet etc. simply by modifying the code table mappings to character glyphs. Now, I will be demonstrating another of the important feature of our system.


Viewing Tamil on PC Terminal Emulation

 When we developed the Tamilfix font, we knew that it will make Tamil readable in the PC Terminal emulation (eg Telnet). A Shell access user can read Tamil text in the WWW textual browser  LYNX. He can also read Tamil in the Terminal Email software PINE. This is a very important development for the Tamil language. In many developing countries, the number of SHELL access users typically outnumbers the TCP account users. Most users access the internet through a character-based terminal emulation rather than a graphical user interface. As such, our system benefits a lot of SHELL access Internet users. This was made possible with our Tamilfix font.


Keyboard Input Systems

Based on the Phonetic system, a phonetic keyboard for the Hindi language was developed by Mohan Thambi in India in 1983. This was subsequently adopted as the main keyboard for the Indian languages by the Department of Electronics (DOE) of India. However, this keyboard is based on Devanagiri script. Since Tamil is from the Dravidian language group rather than the Indo-Aryan, of which numerous other Indian languages belong (e.g., Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali) (Grimes, 1992), the DOE keyboard is not particularly suitable for the Tamil language.

To overcome the keyboard problem for the Tamil language, the author began an investigation into the frequency of occurrence of the Tamil vowels and consonants used within the language. Based on this research, a Tamil phonetic keyboard layout was introduced for Tamil computing (Govindasamy, 1989), named the Singapore Tamil Keyboard (Govindasamy, 1994a). Later in September 1994, the name was changed to Kanian Keyboard at the First Computer-Tamil Conference at the Anna University, Madras, India (Govindasamy, 1994b).

The keyboard consists of the 12 basic Tamil vowels placed on the left-hand side of the keyboard and the 18 consonants. The 28 basic vowels and consonants are placed in the lower case of the keyboard, while the 2 least frequently occurring Tamil consonants are placed at the upper case with the 5 Sanskrit sound consonants. For modern Tamil, a vowel will not appear in the middle or at the end of a Tamil word; it will appear only at the beginning of a word. These basic rules were taken into account when this keyboard layout was designed.

The advantage of this keyboard layout is that 99.5 percent of the time, Tamil characters can be typed without pressing the shift key at all. Moreover, the most frequently used vowels and the consonants are placed at the home keys (the middle row of the keyboard). This allows the user to type 68 percent of the Tamil words by using only home keys. Because of its simplicity and the incorporation of the Tamil grammar, this keyboard layout is very popular in Singapore and Malaysia and has been incorporated in numerous Tamil front-end processing software and word processors, including a commercial version available from the author (Govindasamy, Kanian Bilingual Wordproceesor for PC, Mac & Internet).

The project team has devised a Tamil type writer version for PC & Mac, using KeyMan Keyboard Manager. From our server we are using KeyMan keyboard Manager. For Unix Xkeymap was used to develop the Keyboard Manager for Tamil. These three input devises are downloadable from our Website.


Toward Java keyboard input systems for total cross platform compatibility using Unicode.

 Java Input Method Engine (JIME) for Java from CIR, bundled native input methods and character display support in a set of applets. At present the users can input Chinese, Japanese or Korean text in HTML form irregardless of the locale of the user platform. The Tamilweb project team has developed the Multilingual JIMEWORD. Text editor. JIMEWord - JIMEWord is a multilingual WYSIWYG text editor.

It supports Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French, German, Thai, Cyrillic, Greek and Tamil. It's implemented in Java 1.1 and run on all JDK 1.1 compliant platform. It runs on Unix, Windows95/NT and Mac. Able to edit, load and save text in Unicode UTF-8 and UTF-7 encoding as well as other native encoding like GB2312, BIG5, JIS, KSC, TIS and Tamilnet-Kanian (Singapore Tamil encoding). (Now this Java Input Engine is used in Yahoo Chinese Search - http://www.gime.com ) As for Tamil, this is the first Text editor, which runs on all platforms and saves the text in the Unicode encoding. (NT5 which is supporting Tamil and Devanagiri is yet to come on the market.)


Future Direction and Conclusion


  1. Leong Kok Yong , Tan Tin Wee, Naa Govindasamy & Lee Teck Chee (June, 1996), Multiple Language Support over the World Wide Web, INET96 Conference Paper, Montreal.
  2. Leong Kok Yong , Tan Tin Wee & Lee Teck Chee (March, 1997), Making your Web server render Unicode text for your client users, 10th International Unicode Conference, Mainz, Germany.
  3. Bos, Bert (1996). Internationalization/Localization W3C: Non-Western Character Sets, Languages, and Writing Systems. http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/International/.
  4. Grimes, Barbara F., Editor. (1992). Ethnologue, Languages of the World. 12th Edition. Consulting Editors: Richard S. Pittman and Joseph E. Grimes. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc. Dallas, Texas.
  5. Nicol, Gavin T. (1996). The Multilingual World Wide Web.http://www.ebt.com: 8080/docs/multilingual-www.html. 
  6. Govindasamy, N. (1989). New Keyboard for Tamil Computer, by Naa Govindasamy, 7th International Conference of Tamil Studies Seminar Proceedings, Maritius, December 1989.
  7. Govindasamy, N. (1994a). Computer and Tamil Teaching. 2nd International Conference of Tamil Language Teaching, Kuala Lumpur, June 1994. 
  8. Govindasamy, N. (1994b). Kanian Keyboard. Tamil and Computer Conference Proceedings, Anna University, Madras, India, August 1994.


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