Plato's Greek Is Legible at Last On Modern PCs

By Kevin J. Delany
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
ATHENS -- With its current rollout of Windows 2000, Microsoft Corp. is taking a giant step into the past -- about 2,100 years.

For the first time, Microsoft's computer operating system supports ancient Greek, a language that hasn't been spoken for centuries. [Except everyday in church for the past 2000 years. Clearly, the author is unaware of this "minor" fact.] Users of the 23 different versions of Windows 2000 around the world -- not just here in Greece -- are now able to type using the polytonic alphabet, invented a couple of millennia ago to codify the peculiar pronunciations of Plato's time.

Why bother? There is little market for polytonic software these days beyond the dusty corners of university classics departments and the Greek Orthodox Church's clergy. [Again, the author fails to appreciate the value of having access to the original sources of the New Testament books, the most valuable written documents for every Christian. Perhaps the author cannot tell the difference from the NT translation du jour.]  Mike Tsaladis, marketing manager for Microsoft Hellas SA, the company's Greek subsidiary, concedes that "ancient Greek is definitely not something you can make money off."

But small details can help in a global marketplace where local content still counts. The new feature is just the latest example of the U.S. software giant's efforts to navigate the treacherous seas of local culture and politics in the scores of markets where its products are sold. In addition to polytonic Greek, Microsoft has already tackled about two dozen character sets, including Turkish, Cyrillic, Arabic and Thai. The Indic scripts used for Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Konkani and Sanskrit join polytonic Greek in making their debut with Windows 2000.

Microsoft's polytonic adventure began last November, when a group of 11 legislators drafted a letter to the president of Parliament proposing an investigation into why the U.S. company's software did not include the polytonic Greek alphabet. After the letter was picked up by Greek newspapers, the company was flooded with calls and mail from concerned users, and its Greek unit decided to push forward a standing request to Microsoft's U.S. headquarters that the functionality make it into the latest version.

For Microsoft, the uproar threatened political embarrassment in one of its fastest-growing European outlets. Despite an extended truce in the once-violent skirmishes over Greece's language, debates over linguistic heritage still stir the blood in this country.

For much of the last two centuries, proponents of a polytonic Greek closer to the idiom of the ancients have squared off against those favoring the all-out adoption of a more vernacular language with fewer accents. Such issues are not taken lightly in the cradle of democracy. Writers were regularly taken to court for using the more vernacular script, and eight people died in a riot related to the language debate in the early 1900's.

The elite finally lost that battle nearly 20 years ago, when Parliament formalized the switch over to the monotonic alphabet -- which has just one accent mark instead of six -- for the writing of modern Greek.

But even today, the issue is not entirely resolved. "It's a conspiracy," says Petros Konstantinou, a 50-year-old jewelry salesman, as he sits in the corner of an Internet cafe downtown. "I heard a rumor that Olivetti obliged [the government] to do it." Some scholars say ancient words appear absurd when they aren't written with the right typeface. "I feel very bad when I see them in the monotonic," says Georgios Babiniotis, author of a monotonic dictionary of modern Greek. "It looks ridiculous."

In fact, until recently, the elegant polytonic script faced extinction in some quarters, as a Babel-like absence of standardization frustrated efforts to use it in the digital age.

Last summer, the Greek school system had to use a television signal to transmit the images of ancient-Greek-related questions on standardized tests administered to high-school students. Computer systems throughout the system's 2,500 schools couldn't handle the polytonic lettering.
The rest of the exams were recently sent by a form of internal e-mail. The school system similarly struggled with how to typeset 15 new secondary-school textbooks that include polytonic characters. Its normal computers couldn't handle the task. 

In academic circles around the world, the situation was the same. "It was worse than choosing your religion. Because you could change your religion, but you couldn't change your font," explains Jeffrey Rusten, chairman of the classics department at Cornell University in New York who created his own polytonic typeface out of frustration with the offerings. "And you had written thousands of words in it." 

The basic problem was that there was no standard keyboard placement or digital code for the polytonic characters across the more than a dozen different typefaces available. Classicists mailed each other documents including excerpts of ancient Greek texts for review, because there was no guarantee that the person on the receiving end of an e-mail could read the file. 

Many wound up scribbling the complicated polytonic accent marks -- each letter can take as many as three marks -- over monotonic letters. And in other instances academic journals refused to print polytonic texts, saying that it was technically impossible. That was bad news for the estimated 10,000 people -- mostly scholars and clergy -- around the world who write in ancient Greek every day. 

Microsoft's latest technical fix is a relatively simple one, based on a consortium-developed standard called Unicode, which assigns unique character and keyboard codes for hundreds of alphabets. In addition to polytonic Greek, Unicode already includes Ethiopic, Mongolian, Hebrew, Runic and more than 30 other scripts. There's even been a "Klingon" alphabet proposed for Unicode, extrapolated from the characters used by the aliens in "Star Trek." 

Microsoft's decision is applauded in Greece, drawing praise from TV networks and newspapers. The clergy is particularly appreciative. Ask Agathangelos Haramadithis, 38, director of publications for the Church of Greece, about the polytonic support in Windows 2000 and he smiles. "It's very, very good," he says. 

The slight, bearded man shuffles through a sheaf of yellowed documents in his office at the Holy Synod in central Athens. Among those he lays gently on his desk is the 1850 letter recognizing the Church of Greece's independence from the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, one of the Greek church's founding texts. The church has planned to publish a book of the documents he has in his hands, but without a polytonic standard it was exponentially more complicated. 

Now, with the polytonic feature, officials of the church will be able to enter the texts of the archives into a standard format and draw on them for e-mail, Web sites and publication. For this reason, they say it brings new life to the millennia-old language, giving it currency in the digital age. 

And while it may not earn Microsoft a lot of money, it has earned its Greek-based employees new respect. "When my mother heard about this, she told me that she was proud of me," said Christodoulos Papaphotis, 28, product manager for Office and Windows at Microsoft's Greek unit. 

Ancient Greek "is like your grandmother," Mr. Papaphotis says. "You don't see her every day, but you love her to death."