Until the middle of the past decade, typing Malayalam on the computer was not as easy as it is today. That was around the time when a group of technology and language enthusiasts got together under the banner of Swathanthra Malayalam Computing (SMC) with the aim of “my language for my computer”.
Within a few years, their efforts paid off, with the development of tools and fonts in the Unicode system, enabling a standardised Malayalam script in computers, which is now commonly used in everything from government orders to online newspapers to Internet memes.
Chosen for award
Santhosh Thottingal, a software engineer who played a key role in this transformation, has now been chosen for the Maharshi Badrayan Vyas Samman by the President in recognition of his contributions to Malayalam language. A principal software engineer with the language engineering team of Wikimedia Foundation, Mr. Thottingal is behind some of the most commonly used fonts like Manjari and Chilanka.
“I was active with the free software movement during my college days. The assumption then was that local languages are unsuitable for computers. That is when I came across the work done by a team of Indian Institute of Science (IISc) scientists to develop text-to-speech system for palm-held devices in Kannada. I tried to make something similar in Malayalam when I realised that we have to address the fundamental issues first — being able to type in a proper form in Malayalam. Our attempt through SMC was to build a foundation for Malayalam computing,” he says.
The technology for Malayalam fonts was much more complicated than for English. In Malayalam, the combined letters ( Koottaksharam ) and their shifting patterns had to be coded. He set aside his spare time for five years to perfect these.
History of the language
“We had to learn the core of Malayalam, how the language has been portrayed and the history of printing in Kerala. That is when we realised that the ‘old Malayalam lipi’ was much more scientific and beautiful. The ‘new lipi’ was developed around the 1980s, cutting down the number of letters and separating the combined letters, under the assumption that the old one could not be replicated on computers,” he says.
Following the work of SMC and the release of fonts in the ‘old lipi’, the Kerala government, in 2010, issued an order that all official communication online should shift to the old system.
“All of our work is voluntary and does not generate any revenue, although this work did secure me a job with Wikimedia,” says Santosh. Now he is about to finish an even more important project, to “teach Malayalam grammar to the computer”.
“Now, the computer understands Malayalam only as a sequence of bytes. It does not understand the language like it does English, which enables the working of devices like Alexa and Siri. For that, grammar has to be algorithmically represented and machine-translated. The work is almost over,” he says.