Ubuntu and the Power of Language
One of the three fundamental principles of the Ubuntu philosophy is the availability of software in a user’s native language, whatever that happens to be. While those of us who grew up speaking one of the world’s top 10 languages might never give linguistic freedom a second thought, this is an area where Ubuntu clearly outperforms its proprietary competitors.
Windows XP SP2, according to Microsoft, supports 43 languages. I’m unable to find reliable figures for Mac OS X or Vista, but I’d be surprised if they’re much better.
Ubuntu 8.04, in contrast, is available in more than 150 translations. Granted, this number hardly represents all of the written languages on the planet, and the translations of many of those which are supported remain quite incomplete.
Moreover, some—like the Latin translation—are not of much conceivable practical use (no offense to those of you trying to relive the Gallic Wars). But the sheer abundance of translations in comparison to proprietary platforms, regardless of their completeness, says volumes about the power of open-source software to overcome traditional inequities inherent to traditional software development.
Language is closely tied to personal and cultural identity. As any good historian will tell you, attempts to impose a foreign language on an unwilling group almost never go as planned. The limited language support on proprietary platforms, and the inability of individuals to contribute language packs of their own, constrain the liberty of many people to operate computers in the linguistic and cultural settings in which they are most comfortable.
I’ve never heard of anyone switching to Ubuntu for linguistic purposes (although I’d be surprised if it’s never happened). I also understand the reasons that make Microsoft and Apple’s support of minority languages impractical—we can’t expect profit-oriented corporations to spend money on translations for markets where it doesn’t make fiscal sense.
On open-source platforms, however, such cold financial calculations are irrelevant. If someone wants to add support for an obscure minority language to Ubuntu, there’s nothing to stop her. This means that Ubuntu, through its openness and the enthusiasm of its users, can embrace linguistic groups and cultures ignored by closed-source platforms, an enormously powerful trait that perhaps deserves more credit than it currently enjoys.
So as Ubuntu’s users and developers pursue the geekier objectives of the Ubuntu project, I hope we’ll also harness its linguistic strengths in the long march towards squashing bug #1.
. Microsoft doesn’t provide a clear number regarding language support. My figure of 43 was derived as follows: “There are 24 localized versions of Windows 2000” + “Windows XP adds 9 new languages to the impressive list of languages supported by Windows 2000” + “Windows XP Service Pack 2 introduces ten additional lanaguages [sic]” = 24 + 9 + 10 = 43.
. Note that each of my figures (43 for Windows and 150+ for Ubuntu) does not count dialects or locales as distinct languages; in other words, e.g. British English and American English are considered to represent only one language.
WorksWithU Contributing Blogger Christopher Tozzi is a PhD student at a major U.S. university. Tozzi has extensive hands-on experience with Ubuntu Server Edition and Ubuntu Desktop Edition.