Picture this. Two editors are locked in a fierce argument over the phonetically correct spelling for 'metre' in the Tamil script. While one editor insists 'meattar' is the correct transliteration, the other, who speaks Jaffna Tamil, insists that 'meeRRar' is the way to go. Tamil Wikipedia editors know exactly what this behind-the-pages war is about; as the Tamil Wikipedia has as many - if not more - serious contributors from Sri Lanka. Hence the point of conflict, as they say in wikispeak.
Like in the Bengali Wikipedia, where a good number of contributors are from Bangladesh, here too this online collaborative effort has transcended many barriers. As Wikipedia turns nine this week, its thriving Indian community looks forward to doing more than just weaving together a repository of freely accessible knowledge. It hopes that increasing wiki pages in Indian languages will, in turn, fuel the growth of vernacular content online.
A chicken and egg situation? Perhaps, concedes Balasundararaman, a wikieditor of five years. "Lack of online references [for citations or sources] in local languages is a major issue we face. But we hope that creating a better search experience will trigger demand for more resources." No less than 0.3 million of 7 million unique page views of Wikipedia from India (March 2009 comScore study) were traced to vernacular pages. Today, there are 52,470 Hindi wiki articles; over 44,265 articles in Telugu, over 20,000 each in Bengali and Tamil. In 2009, the Marathi, Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu wikis recorded over 100 per cent increase in page views.
As impressive as these numbers are, wikipedian Arun Ramarathnam from Bangalore points out that awareness is a major obstacle. "Most people don't know that Wikipedia, even Wiki News, exists in their local languages. Also, people are generally not computing literate in their mother tongues."
To rectify this, wikipedians have been organising offline extensions such as wiki meet-ups and outreach programmes 'wikiacademies' in schools and colleges. In Kerala, the pro-Free/Libre software government has made learning wiki editing a part of its IT@Schools programme.
The non-standardisation of data entry for Indian language fonts has been an issue. Lack of platform-independent fonts, inscript (a common keyboard layout for all languages), and good local search engines stand in the way of a better vernacular virtual experience.
"Even Mediawiki (the wikipedia software) had issues with linking wiki articles, for instance. These bugs had to be fixed, No localisation is smoother," observes Mr. Balasundararaman.
Tools such as Google's new Translator Toolkit, released last June, enables easy translation of documents/webpages in English to local languages. Transliteration tools are available in abundance.
So can a vibrant vernacular Wikipedia transform the language of the Web in India? Given the resounding success of this collective, and an army of Indian wiki foot soldiers to back it, it is indeed possible.