Writing Bangla on a computer is a fairly easy thing these days. For those who find typing with Bijoy difficult, they can use Avro.
The keypads on our smartphones have also made it easier for us to type in Bangla, thanks to ridmik, Gboard and Mayabi. It is hard to believe that there was a time when there was no proper software for processing Bangla.
Despite the revolutionary changes, those who work in Bangla in the digital sphere - such as writers, linguists, software developers, artistes and font developers – say we still have a long way to go in making Bangla one of the most used languages on the internet. Bangla is the seventh most spoken language in the world, yet it does not feature among the top 40 languages online.
One major issue is that despite the presence of hundreds of Bangla fonts, only a handful have become popular owing to issues of readability and functionality. Also, not enough commercial and national institutions have adopted the practice of developing their own fonts. Meanwhile, there is a lack of effective open source and free software to type in Bangla.
Digitising the Bangla alphabets
There are almost 300 Bangla fonts available and typing software like Bijoy, Avro, Sulekha and SolaimanLipi own most of these fonts. Lipighor has more than 150 fonts, Bengal Fonts has 10 fonts etc.
You can download these fonts from system software like Unicode, Bengal Fonts, Lipighor, Charu Chandra etc.
But among these 300 fonts, only 8 or 9 are popular (Sutonny, Karnafuli, Tatsama, Akhanda etc) because of their clean appearance and readability.
Working with Bangla has other complications too. For example, the short signs of Bangla vowels (kaar chinho) do not follow one simple rule while standing with the Bangla consonants.
Some of these signs stand before the consonant, some after, and some beneath the consonant.
But the main problem arises when you pronounce the word, where the vowel sounds come in the end.
Take the word 'chhele' (boy in Bangla) as an example. Here the eh-kaar is before the 'chhe' and 'le', but it is pronounced at the end.
Understanding this positioning and use of letters is crucial for creating any font and many developers lack this skill.
Sometimes while writing conjunctives (juktoborno) on digital platforms, due to poor quality coding, the letters often break.
For example, the font Sutonny is available on Bijoy software. Now if someone writes using the Unicode software but opens the doc file on a device that has Bijoy, the fonts break.
Lack of open source and free software
In the world of Bangla typing software, Bijoy, founded in 1988, still remains the most widely used software, despite the arrival of free softwares such as Avro and Ridmik. An original version of the software costs around Tk5,000 although most people in Bangladesh tend to use the pirated version.
Being a native Bangla speaker, why should anyone have to buy software to use Bangla? This is a question that baffles many, including Head of Creative at The Business Standard, Shalim Hossain Saju.
"From not being able to write in Bangla on computers to using SutonnyMJ, we have come a long way. But I still think we are yet to give Bangla the respect it deserves in the digital medium," he said.
"Software should be free for all, how else do we proudly showcase our works in Bangla?" he exclaimed.
According to Posts and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar, also developer of Bijoy, compared to commercially manufactured software, open source software is not as regularly updated or developed since they are created voluntarily.
Mustafa Jabbar further added that free and open source software are not the same. "Many organisations do business with free software, such as Google's Android, Meta's Facebook etc. On the other hand, open source software has an open source code that anyone can work with."
When asked why there are still so few functional Bangla typing software out there, he said, "Even I have a hard time developing and updating Bijoy Bangla software, and it has been in the market for so long. So for a new competitor, things might be quite challenging."
On the rampant use of pirated versions, Mustafa Jabbar said, "It is rather unfortunate that those who are willing to buy expensive computers refuse to pay a fraction of it to buy software."
He added that public institutions as well as NGOs have a role to play in raising awareness against piracy.
The importance of developing Bangla fonts
Imagine you have a torn piece of a leading daily newspaper in your hand. Just by looking at the text, you will recognise which newspaper it belongs to. Unfortunately, very few Bangla newspapers, or commercial and national institutions, have their own fonts.
Senior Art Director at AdComm Ltd, Ujjal Kumar Mazumder has a passion for typography; creating fonts comes to him naturally.
But he believes creators' efforts in developing Bangla fonts go unrecognised. Naturally, when their work is not valued, they become demotivated.
"It is not an easy task to make fonts; you actually need a well-developed plan beforehand. But the creators do not get their due credit."
However, he also applauds the younger generation of font developers for making new Bangla fonts on their own. "If only they could learn from proper institutions, things would have improved tremendously," Ujjal opined.
On font development, Shalim Hossain Saju believes the government should have a font of its own for official purposes, as should institutions such as Bangla Academy.
"Some companies invest in creating their own font; it gives them a unique identity. It also creates a sense of pride," he opined.
Developing software in ethnic minority languages
There are many Bangla dialects in our country and our ethnic minority communities have different languages such as Chakma, Santal, Manipuri and many more.
If users are struggling with Bangla software, what is the state of developing software in these languages? What is the government's plan regarding this?
"I myself have made typing software for Chakma language and the ICT department has further plans for it. But in my opinion, commercially manufacturing such software might not be that successful; the government has to eventually step in," said Mustafa Jabbar.
He further explained that while it is not an impossible task, finding native speakers of these languages who know the alphabets might be difficult as many new generations of children now write with Bangla or Roman letters.
The way forward
During a recent event held in the city, Jabbar said the government has already undertaken a Tk159.2 crore project to develop 16 tools to facilitate the application of the Bangla language in technology. These include development of Bangla OCR, text to speech and vice versa, Bangla style guide, Bangla font interoperability, digital sign language in Bangla, keyboard for ethnic minority languages, standardization of Bangla grammar and spelling etc.
In terms of improving the quality of digital products in Bangla, Shalim Hossain Shaju thinks designers need to be more careful while designing a certain font for digital media. And this requires meticulous coding for every possible word. He suggested the designers consult linguistic experts for a better understanding of Bangla.
"To strengthen Bangla's position in the digital medium, we have to use more of it on digital platforms like YouTube and different blog sites. Even e-books and apps have an important role to play here," he said.