Robert McCrum’s new book, Globish, documents the Internet-fuelled rise of English to become the global language. But the same Internet that seems to endanger the world’s minority tongues may yet turn out to be their salvation. Nunavut, with a population density of one person per 70 sq. km—some 30,000 people scattered across two million sq. km—needs Internet services as much as downtown Toronto. But it wants them in its own language: Inuktitut, a language that, at the time of Nunavut’s founding in 1999, lacked not only software, but even a keyboard that could display its syllabic alphabet.
The new territory approached Microsoft Canada for help in crafting the keyboard, but the software giant decided to go further. “This was a chance to put our software skills to the test,” said Microsoft Canada executive Jason Brommet. The company was able to apply an Inuktitut “skin” over English-language software, allowing what Microsoft calls “80 per cent localized user experience”—four-fifths of what’s seen on screen is in the minority tongue. The rest, mainly titles and tech terms, remains in English.
Once the Nunavut government opted for adapting existing words—paippaamuurlugu, meaning “to copy by hand,” became the “print” command, for instance—rather than coining new phrases, work could begin. Translators turned Windows and Microsoft’s Office System 2003—and later their 2007 versions—into Inuktitut using the Roman alphabet. Next up is finishing the original job: getting the software into the Inuktitut syllabic script, so that the keyboard can finally be used, a modern tool to keep an ancient language afloat in a sea of Globish.