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In today’s digitised and ultra-connected world, the need to be understood everywhere, by everyone, in every language, has never been greater. But the quest for universal legibility presents a troubling paradox: being universally understood without sacrificing a key element of what makes us who we are – our language.
The internet has made our societies and cultures increasingly borderless and accessible, meaning that someone in London is never more than a keystroke away from their peers in Tokyo or São Paulo. But for millions of people, accessing and creating digital content, and communicating their dreams, desires, thoughts and intentions in their native tongue can at best result in glitches and misunderstandings and at worst demand a degree of linguistic homogenisation that threatens some of the world’s rarest languages with extinction.
Over the past 30 years, the forces of accelerating globalisation have thrown different cultures and nationalities together like never before, and nowhere more so than online. Research suggests that two major global trends have created a virtual Tower of Babel in which many new languages and alphabets are clamouring to be heard, and in which the need for a common legible font has never been greater. Riding the shockwaves of globalisation, represented by major trends such as Small-world Syndrome and Borderless Brands, designers are seeking what is essentially an online Rosetta Stone – a font that holds the key to universal translation while avoiding the trap of linguistic dumbing down.
Consider the sheer numbers. The current world population of 7.3bn is expected to reach 8.5bn by 2030, 9.7bn in 2050 and 11.2bn in 2100, according to a new UN report. A growing proportion of this teeming multitude is on the move, online and in the real world, playing and working together in ways that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. Consequently, in nearly every borough in London today 100 languages are spoken, according to UK Census data. In the US, multicultural citizens are the fastest-growing demographic, with 120m multicultural people now living there, according to Nielsen. Globally, the number of people living outside of the country in which they were born reached 244m in 2015, according to the UN.
This worldwide intermingling of cultures and languages is even more pronounced in cyberspace. Cross-border data flows have grown by a factor of 45 over the past decade, and they are projected to increase another ninefold by 2020, according to researchers at Harvard Business Review. As a result, 914m people have at least one international connection on social media, and 360m take part in cross-border e-commerce, according to McKinsey Global Institute.
‘With major advances in technology, travel and open markets over the past 20 years, we are seeing the emergence of a more mobile global citizenry,’ says Yvonne McNulty, founder of think tank Expat Research. ‘As people have more experience living and travelling abroad, they are more at ease living in new cultural environments for personal and economic reasons, and expect to be able to communicate with greater ease.’
Our mother tongue is a key part of our identity, linking us to our loved ones and peers, and making us feel a part of the culture and country into which we are born. Our networked world, an enabler of amazing new global relationships and professional and personal possibilities in so many ways, poses an often unrecognised danger to the future of languages and written traditions that give hundreds of millions of people a clear sense of their place in society and the world.
Perhaps the most promising solution offered to date is the new Noto Sans font, produced by font specialist Monotype alongside its counterparts at Google, after a quest that illustrates the scale of the task at hand. At present, users typing in a lesser-known language might see small blank boxes, known as tofu, appear on their screens to indicate a missing character. Noto Sans, Noto being short for ‘no tofu’, is designed to create one file for all writing systems in the Unicode standard. In short, the team took on the gargantuan challenge of creating a single font that caters for over 100 writing systems used by more than 800 languages, each with their own cultural significance, inflections, subtleties and accents.
‘In one way or another, I’d like people to be able to perpetuate their traditions, whether they do it by hand or digitally. At this moment, everybody can do it by hand, but we want to make sure that the next generation will have access to the digital tools that everybody has,’ says Kamal Mansour, linguistic typographer at Monotype.
Over the next decade, designers will be at the forefront of the battle to find ever-more sophisticated and elegant solutions to the Translation Paradox to ensure that the emergence of new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality enable us all to talk and be understood without the need to sacrifice a key element of what makes us who we are – our language.
This is an edited extract of a longer article. Read the full version on the Monotype website.