Old alphabet adapted for modern use in technology

One of the world’s oldest living alphabets could make its debut soon on mobile phones, Ethiopian scientists said on Thursday. In groundbreaking research, the ancient script of Ethiopic, which dates back to the fourth century, has been adapted so it can be used for SMS text messaging.

The scientists believe it will open up the digital age to millions of people in Ethiopia who cannot speak or write English, but use their own centuries-old alphabet.

Samuel Kinde, who proposed the research, said the breakthrough means rural farmers can access healthcare via text messaging, e-commerce and banking.

"We are enabling one of humanity’s oldest scripts to enter the wireless age," he told IRIN. "Think of a rural coffee farmer who will be able to text yield and price information to dealers in the capital and elsewhere in real time."

The system could also be used by rural farmers to gain vital information like weather and harvest reports without the need of expensive computers.

"This is an important advance," Assistant Prof Solomon Atnafu said from the Addis Ababa University computer science department, a key researcher on the project.

He said that the relatively cheap cost of mobile phones over computers makes them an ideal tool in helping open up the impoverished country to the digital revolution.

The researchers, who carried out the work at Addis Ababa University, said European mobile phone giant, Nokia, has already expressed interest in their yearlong study.

"There is a significant amount of interest from potential users as well as from chipset manufacturers," added Dr Samuel, an engineering professor from the University of California at San Diego.

"The reason why we chose Ethiopic is for the very fact that for SMS and other wireless applications to succeed in Ethiopia, the local writing system has to be used," he added. "We felt the majority of users will be comfortable in writing their own script. The vision also anticipates that mobile phone systems can indeed be used for more fundamental and far-reaching purposes in food security, SMS-based telemedicine and commerce, among other things."

Ethiopic is used for Amharic – the national language of Ethiopia’s 70 million people. It has always been a source of pride for Ethiopians. The nation is the only African country with its own alphabet, which is still widely used. The script is also used to write the holy Orthodox Christian script Ge’ez and is still chanted by priests in incense-filled churches across the country.

However, it does pose problems for exploiting modern communication technology because of its ungainly 345 letters compared with 26 in the Latin alphabet. The scientists have whittled that number down to 210 characters. They then "mapped" a base alphabet of 28 letters onto a standard handset, with users having to thumb in more keystrokes if they wanted the additional characters.