All the letters in our script are equal — but some are more equal than others

A story of how technology could influence a language....

8 min read

3 months ago

Latest Post All the letters in our script are equal — but some are more equal than others

Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia share the same extension of the Latin script. Our alphabets contain the total of 30 letters:

Screenshot from Wikipedia's Gaj's Latin alphabet article.

Three things you might notice:

  1. There is no "q", "x", "y", nor "w"
  2. Three digraphs (pairs of characters that represent a distinct sound): "lj", "nj" and "dž"
  3. A fair amount of letters with accents: č, ć, dž, đ, š, ž

If these accents sound a bit confusing to you, it might be a bit easier to understand if I use a Spanish example. "N" and "ñ" are two separate letters in the Spanish alphabet and in general you could figure out that they're pronounced differently without knowing any Spanish. If you lose the accent on "ñ", you're writing a wrong letter. Our "nj" is equivalent to Spanish "ñ" — the letter "j" is our accent, and "n" + "j" morphed into a sound almost identical to the Spanish "ñ". Almost every other unique letters formed the same way — another letter was morphed with "j": "z" + "j" = "ž", "d" + "j" = "đ", "c" + "j" = "č", and so on.

I want to focus on those accents. More precisely, I want to talk about how technology washed them away.

SMS era

You might be familiar with the fact that SMS allows up to 160 characters. If English is your only language, what you might not be aware of is that it only allows up to 160 characters if you're using letters exclusively from the English alphabet. Adding a single accent reduces the maximum amount of characters quite a bit.

If I replace any of 160 characters with an letter typed with an accent, I'll see that I now have have 41 characters remaining in my 3rd message!

While the entire draft can't be shown on Android, I've just replaced the last "0" with a "ć".

If I want to fit my message into a single SMS using all 30 characters of my script, my SMS can be no more than 70 characters in size:

This time, the draft can be seen in its entirety.

Back in those days when cellphones still weren't "smart", there was a decent chance that our cellphones might support at least one of the three desired keyboard layouts (Croatian/Serbian/Bosnian). But when it did, your choice was between bad and worse:

  1. Pay 3x as much for just as many characters
  2. Remove all the accents.

As a consequence, even though "č", "ć", and "c" make three distinct sounds when we speak, on the screen they've all became plain-normal "c". This change could lead to a confusion in certain situations — for example, "pice" could be interpreted as both "piće" ("a drink") and "pice" ("pizzas"), but such situations are rare.

Windows XP era

Once you go though the (pirated) Windows XP installation by just clicking "next" and typing in the product key that's now so ubiquitous that you can see it on Wikipedia, you end up with the keyboard layout automatically set to "English (US)". When I got my hands on a computer for the first time, I didn't even know it was possible to change that! Way before I got my Internet connection, I distinctly remember printing an essay for my middle school class using a washed out version of the Latin. With the printed copy in my hand, I went through it with a pen and added the missing accents. It's not that the teacher requested me to do that, it just felt like a right thing to do.

A combination of multiple things resulted in the overall problem only getting worse:

  1. not knowing how to change the preference,
  2. a fair amount of keyboards with German or English layout on the market,
  3. the fact that we were already used to washing out our accents from the SMS era.

Quirkiness that remains

These problems seem mostly solved by now. Nowadays, a default installation of any operating system is likely to result with the correct keyboard layout. SMS use is in decline and messages on social media don't have any stupid character limits. Keyboards with our own layouts are readily available to us (unless we're looking for a higher-end one). However, the issues are far from over.

Above mentioned digraphs ("lj", "nj" and "dž") cannot be found on our keyboard layout, but you will find "q", "x", "y", and "w". While you could argue that "w" would be useful to have in our keyboard layout (for typing "www."), other three never really had a real use case in our language(s).

Layout from Wikimedia Commons, shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

While you can find "lj", "nj" and "dž" in Unicode (note: these are single characters), nobody ever uses them. I didn't use my keyboard to write them here — I've copied them over instead.

You might also notice that "z" and "y" switched places, something that is common across Central Europe.

Our own top-level domains ( .ba,  .rs, and .hr) don't support registering domains that contain letters with accents.

And finally, just to make you scratch your head a bit more, I'd like to introduce to you the Slovenian keyboard layout. Well, there's nothing really to introduce you to since the Slovenian keyboard layout is identical to the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian layout displayed above, despite the fact that on top of not containing "q", "w", "x", and "y", Slovene alphabet also doesn't contain "ć" and "đ". That makes ~19.35% of the letters on the Slovenian keyboard layout utterly useless to those writing text in Slovenian.

They even have to skip a key to get to the letter "ž".

Smartphone era

Smartphones completely obliterated the idea of us having our own distinct keyboard layout. Instead, our keyboard layout became this:

Screenshot of Google's Gboard using the Bosnian keyboard layout.
Screenshot of Microsoft's SwiftKey using the Bosnian keyboard layout.

Since the smartphones took over, all the letters with accents are now more difficult to reach — even in our own keyboard layout. While autocorrect fixes this inconvenience for some people (myself included), others stopped bothering filling it up the dictionary with all the possible word permutations in our obscure language(s). Some never bothered in the first place.

Thanks to the technology, all the letters in our alphabet are equal — but some are more equal than others.

Since our keyboard layout got shrunken down to the English one, letters that used to be equal to all the others are far more inconvenient to use. We still use them when we speak or write on paper, but it's not uncommon to see them missing on a screen.

The effect

I distinctly remember one conversation with my high-school peer. He said to me that writing with the washed out version of Latin (or as we like to call it, "Latin that got a haircut") makes me appear as unprofessional — and he did have a point. However, old habits die hard. I myself decided to ignore his "critique" for a while. ("I'm so used to keyboard shortcuts in the English layout!") Regardless, what he said remained stuck in my head.

Some time after that (months? years?), I've started switching between keyboard layouts all the time, depending if I'm writing in English or Bosnian. That became too inconvenient very quickly. That's when I've realized that having "q", "w", "x", and "y" in my native keyboard layout was actually a good thing for me!

What I've assumed to be unnecessary for a long time has proven to be quite handy. It allows me to type in both my native language and English using a single keyboard layout! I've never looked back afterwards.

Once I forced myself to get used to "QWERTZ" layout, that was it — I cannot go to any other layout ever again. I use it to this day, regardless if the text I'm writing is not in my native language (like this one).

I was looking for a new laptop right around the time when I was about to move to Amsterdam. After I've decided on the model and checked the prices, I've ended up knowingly paying 350€ extra for the same laptop before the move so that I could keep using the layout I was so used to.

People who keep using washed out version of the Latin are no different than me. Just as I could not go back to the English keyboard layout (even if the cost is an additional 350€), other people could never get used to our own keyboard layout. As the technologies switched, one thing remained constant: not using the accents was always more convenient than using them.

It really doesn't take me long to find examples of this:

Top comment on the first news I've clicked on. In case you're wondering, the "y" in the username is used to circumvent a profanity filter (it roughly translates to "the country fucks me over").
An extreme example from Facebook. Errors can be seen in the last name ("-vić" is a common last-name suffix around here), tagged location, and in the status update.
In the FAQ section of one of Bosnia's government websites.

You might be surprised to see that last one, because it only contains one error. While I can't tell you how this specific error got made, I could make an educated guess: Like the middle-school me, someone wrote this text using the English layout. After that, either the same person or someone else went through the text manually to add all the missing accents. They've missed one.

Our alphabet is not unique

Prior to the rise of consumer-facing technologies, there was no argument to be had: "č", "ć" and "c" made different sounds and were always spelled differently. There were no prior records of this behavior when we wrote things primarily on a piece of paper.

That has since changed. "Č" and "ć" became more of an alternative ways of pronouncing the letter "c", "š" became an alternative way of pronouncing the letter "s", and so on. While this practice may appear as unprofessional, it remains prominent.

The technologies we rely on have changed, our keyboards have changed, but one thing remained constant: it is move convenient to write our language(s) incorrectly. The precedent was set a long time ago by the technologies that are no longer as relevant as they were back then. Fixes were on their way as an afterthought, but by the time they've arrived, it was too late — habits were made since we've first touched the keyboards.

Of course, those who designed the technologies such as SMS and smartphones never had our language(s) in mind during the design phase — and that's precisely the point. The technologies we make today could have a profound impact in a corner of the world you've never even thought about in the future. Diversity needs to be a bit more than an afterthought.


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Published 3 months ago

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