Nombres Inv´§alidos

by Sebastián Martínez Sánchez

If you have ever checked in for a flight online, created a username, or signed up for some digital  service with a name that is not English, you have either chosen to adapt or been rejected. If  your name has any special characters, it has been called invalid. My name is Sebastián  Martínez Sánchez. The accents are integral to it, and they define how it is to be pronounced.  Yet, in the online space, I have often chosen to erase them, and I have become Sebastian Martinez. To the untrained eye, the difference might be negligible, but any speaker of Spanish would be able to point out the enormous implications in pronunciation that this change carries. As a teenager, I was even embarrassed about them, angry at Spanish for having these special, extra elements that added to the complexity of presenting myself online. As I have gotten older, I’ve become more capable of appreciating the elegance of the accent system in written Spanish, and with it the deep nuances in our language that do not exist in written English. 

But in cyberspace, these nuances are often erased, blanched by many systems incapability of accepting non-standard, special characters. Note the italics, because they do not have to be  this way: rather, they are built by people that consider the characters special, or extra, or  unnecessary, and are thus eliminated. My name is not special, it is in fact ridiculously commonplace, and ‘á’ and ‘é’ and ‘í’ are just letters like any other. In fact, it is much more common for languages that use the latin alphabet to include special characters. Let’s have a look:

An (admittedly short and incomplete) list of languages that use special characters:  
  • Spanish
  • French
  • German 
  • Irish 
  • Danish 
  • Swedish 
  • Italian 
  • Norwegian 
  • Polish 
  • Turkish
  • Serbo-Croatian (when written in the latin alphabet) 
  • Finnish 
  • Hungarian 
  • Lithuanian 
  • Slovenian 
  • Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera 

Of course, now would be the time to talk about cultural colonialism and the expectation that the  online world conforms to English. The only reason why other languages even have special characters is to make our written systems better at depicting the realities of our speech. Meanwhile, English is a free-for-all: few structured rules, letters that sound completely different depending on the word they’re on, and a general  impossibility to accurately predict how a word is pronounced if you’ve never heard it spoken before. It took me years to realize that the word ‘caveat’ is pronounced ka-vee-at instead of cave-at… ridiculous spelling. And this nonchalant approach to spelling is clearly visible in the prejudices of the people who initially coded these systems. Originally, digital character encodings were based on ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), designed in the ‘60s, in the US, from telegraph code for English. It had 128 characters, including encodings for mathematical operators, but no accents. Now, I get how the fact that written English has so little nuance in its alphabet might have been attractive for some programmer in the ‘70s obsessed with coding in as few characters as possible (128), comfortable with sacrificing breadth for a few extra bits to work in some added functionality. But it’s not the ‘70s anymore. The internet is global, bits are relatively cheap, and language diversity and accessibility to online tools are the future. Think, if you don’t believe me, of the millions and millions that have been invested into tools such as Google Translate. Without a more generalized capacity to actually write our names, our words, correctly where we need them, all of these efforts are for naught. 

But back to invalid names: it was pointed out to me by a Danish friend with ‘ø’ in his name that by  simplifying it to ‘o’ he was able to more easily communicate with non-Danes online. Great. My  issue is not with choosing to simplify your name for the sake of accessibility, but with the  expectation that you should. The expectation is especially jarring in formal contexts. Every time my name is misspelled on plane tickets I have a minor anxiety attack that they won’t let me on the plane because my ticket does not match the name on my passport. It has never happened, but I still worry. After all, the ticket never does have my name on it. And I have very mild issues with this. ‘A’ and ‘á’ differ only in emphasis. Ask someone who has an ‘ñ’ in their name, or a ‘ç’, or a ‘˘z’ (note how the  font I am using does not even allow me to have the tilde on top of the z as it should be). 

Which brings me to character sets in typographies. Would it be incredibly difficult to code all of  the extra characters into your font such that it is acceptable not only for English but also for the  other myriad languages that write in the latin alphabet? Laborious, for sure. But most special  characters are similar to English letters with tildes. It is a choice, even if it is borne out of lack of  resources, or ignorance or inattention. But it  constrains the scope of your typography, and if you’re not going to provide access to it in other  languages, at least be conscious that you’re artificially limiting the number of users you will  have. In any case, I can guarantee I will never write in  Spanish with a typography that lacks ‘ñ’. 

In short, think about special characters! If you’re a developer, realize that including support for  non-standard English characters will improve accessibility for international users. If you’re a  typography designer, know that including or excluding characters will expand or limit your user  base. If you’re a user, push for online spaces to include the characters you need, and use them!  And, if you’ve never interacted with tildes in your own language, don’t be afraid of them. They  won’t hurt you, they’re not as weird or complicated or difficult as they seem, and there’s nothing  extraordinary about seeing them in a word. They’re just letters.