Seeing gobbledygook instead of Latvian?

Are you still seeing gobbledygook when viewing Latvian Web pages? You shouldn’t be. With the advances in recent years in multilingual capabilities of personal computers it doesn’t matter what type of computer you are using—whether it is a Windows, Macintosh or a Unix/Linux based system.

Nor does it matter if you use Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Mozilla, Opera or Safari. Just about any recent version Web browser will correctly render Latvian type with all the appropriate diacritics—garumzīmes, šnācēni and mīkstinājumi—on your computer screen.

Ten years have passed since the Baltics were accepted into international computing circles. The introduction of the Latvian computing standard in 1992 slowly signaled the end to the many non-standard fonts that had been developed by enthusiasts from all corners of the globe. At one stage there were more than 20 different de facto Baltic standards, represented by fonts such as BaltTimes, LatHelvetica, Latvian Arial and LaFutura. Today they still cause much angst amongst Latvian newspaper publishing houses. Plus most of the older Baltic fonts won’t work very well, if at all, in your Web browser.

For the World Wide Web and the Baltic languages the future is Unicode—a standard that allows single documents to contain characters or text from many scripts and languages—and to allow those documents to be used on computers with operating systems in any language and still remain intelligible. Unicode (or ISO 10646) already has grown to a list of 65,534 commonly used characters and other glyphs are being added for specialist applications such as historic scripts and scientific notation. There have even been proposals to include some artistic scripts such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tengwar and Cirth from The Lord of the Rings fame.

Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP, Linux Red Hat 8.0, Macintosh OS 8.5 and later versions including Macintosh OS X all support Unicode TrueType fonts and as a result can display almost any character on screen. Examples of Unicode fonts are Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica and Lucida Grande. Estonian, Latvian, Latgallian, Lithuanian—even the nearly extinct Liv (Livonian) alphabet with the unusual double level accents—are all supported by this universal character set. Baltic letters are located within the Latin Extended-A and Latin Extended-B script ranges (256-591). Web developers can easily access these with a Unicode-aware HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) editor such as Adobe GoLive 5, FrontPage 2000 or BBEdit 6.0 and a matching keyboard driver.

Baltic Web users currently have two choices to configure their Web browsers. You can choose either the subset “Baltic (Windows)” or go all the way with “Unicode UTF-8” encoding. In most cases the encoding is automatically set by the Web browser. If you are using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer you can check this by selecting the “View” menu and viewing the “Encoding” or “Character Set” option. In addition you may also be required to select a proportional (or Web font) and fixed width (or plain text font) to match the Baltic language encoding. If you’re a Macintosh user I recommend you download Apple’s latest Mac OS X browser, Safari, which is considerably faster than Internet Explorer and, with Unicode selected, renders Latvian Web pages flawlessly.

If the Web page is still not displaying the Latvian text correctly you can check the header of the Web page by choosing the “Source” option from the “View” menu. One of the two following lines should have been included in the header: <meta http-equiv=“Content-Type” content=“text/html; charset=windows-1257”> or <meta http-equiv=“Content-Type” content=“text/html; charset=UTF-8”>.

After a quick scan of several major Web sites in Latvia I noticed that most are still taking the conservative “charset=windows-1257” approach. Transitions Online, a Prague-based online magazine about Central and East Europe, made inroads three years ago when it started marking its pages in Unicode.

The more technically inclined can even take a peek into the style sheet of a Web site to check that no special fonts are being used. The best Web sites will stick to the popular Unicode fonts for maximum compatibility across all of the major computer platforms.

Put your computer to the test. I have created two examples so you can try to find out whether your browser is configured correctly. The first example  will check whether your Web browser can display all three Baltic languages and the second example will prepare you for the future when multiple languages on the same page will be gracing our computer screens.

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