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TEI-L  October 1992

TEI-L October 1992

Subject:

SGML Philosophy, Character vs. Glyph

From:

Glenn Adams <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Glenn Adams <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 5 Oct 1992 23:03:05 CDT

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (81 lines)

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
 
Regarding the philosophy of SGML, I am not suggesting that a user shouldn't
begin to change his/her perception of textual information in the structured
way that SGML allows.  What I *am* suggesting is that mortal users should
not be forced to learn SGML syntax.  I don't believe a user should be typing
raw SGML text.  I also think likewise about TeX, which, over the years I
have become quite expert at; but, because I know the pain of learning it
(and SGML), shouldn't want it forced on anyone else.  I have also used
very high-level structured text systems that give as much or more structure,
e.g., Concordia on the Symbolics Lisp Machine.  In the latter, the user
*did* have to learn the functional abstractions of structured text, but *did
not* have to learn an arcane syntax that only computer scientists could learn
to love.
 
I certainly agree that users will indeed have to learn SGML (and TeX) until
such high-level systems are more wide-spread.  But I would like to suggest
that this is an interim step to a more user-friendly technology that gives
the same power, but leaves abstract syntax behind.  [Of course a high level
system could use SGML (or another structure inducing syntax) underneath the
covers, and may indeed publish this layer for use by expert users].
 
As for the Glyph/Character distinction, I have just reviewed the Liaison
statement to which you refer, Attachment 1 to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 18 N3592 Rev.
"Liaison statement to JTC 1/SC 2 from JTC 1/SC 18 on ISO/IEC DIS 10646-1.2"
(1992-05-26).  I agree with the goals of this liaison statement,
particularly in regard to the desire for WG2 to specify an operational model
that specifies the distinction between characters and glyphs.  I urged as
much in the discussions that led to the 10646 ballot.  However, there
is a serious problem with the Liaison statement regarding its definition
of character.
 
It defines character thus:
 
  "Characters are the abstract lexical (or logical) elements of writing
   systems, considered independently of language, culture, and other
   external perceptions.  They generally represent the smallest freely-
   combining units of such a system.  Characters, since they more directly
   concern correspond to the abstract "meaning" or identity of the text
   they coney, are used in nearly all operations except for actual text
   presentation."
 
The first sentence is logically impossible, at least according to the
best definition of writing system that I think one can find.  This sentence
asserts that "a character is the element of a writing system," yet, at the
same time, it states that such an element is "considered independently of
language..."  But a writing system is bound not only to a particular language
but also to a particular set of orthographic rules (i.e., culural uses).
The French writing systems are different from the English writing systems;
the British English writing system is distinct from the American English
writing system.  A writing system is a particular form which written language
takes in the context of a particular language, a particular set of orthographic
rules (e.g., correspondences between formal and functional entities), and
a collection of symbols drawn from one or more scripts (e.g., Latin, Arabic,
Han, etc.).  Like phonology, whence phonemes are defined only in relation
to a particular system of language, graphemes also can be defined only in
relation to a particular language and set of rules which give rise to these
units' capacity as "the smallest freely-combining units."
 
If this definition had left out the second part of the first sentence, i.e.,
"considered independently...", then I would be happy with this definition;
although I would say that this is simply the "intuitive" definition of
a character (as understood by an element of an Alphabet, e.g., an element
of the Spanish alphabet, or an element of the English alphabet, or an
element of the Vietnamese alphabet - all being separate writing systems
based on the Latin script).  Such an "intuitive" notion of character is
not tenable in the context of a universal character set which, indeed,
does remove linguistic distinctions.  Because of this latter fact, one
cannot use the intuitive definition of character, but must, instead, adopt
a different definition that is centered around the formal elements of
scripts rather than the elements of writing systems.
 
I would suggest that if SGML systems think the user is specifying glyphs, then
these systems are in seriously need of conceptual clarification.  Character
sets (10646) included are not the enumeration of glyphs.  They are enumeration
of abstract elements which, singularly or jointly, serve to represent meaning,
and which, during display functions, may be mapped to glyphs for the purpose
of display.
 
Glenn Adams

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