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The Lepcha language has gotten the nod from the Unicode Consortium to be added to edition 5.1 of Unicode, which is due to be released in March or April. As obscure as it may seem, the recognition of being included in Unicode is an important step in preserving the language and culture of the Lepchas.

Adding the written Lepcha language to the international standard for encoding characters on electronic media will allow it to be displayed on computers, interchanged electronically with other world languages, and included with word processing programs worldwide.

Dr. Helen Plaisier, who is at the Leiden University in the Netherlands, has evidently been spearheading the initiative to include the language. Last week she told a news service, “the acceptance of the Lepcha script in the Unicode standard is of great importance for everyone who wishes to use the Lepcha script on a computer.”

The researcher, who recently completed a database of 300 Lepcha bird names, has been joined by other scholars in all parts of the world in urging the Unicode Consortium to accept Lepcha in its database of languages. The names used by the Lepchas for their birds, insects, plants, and other wildlife are keys to understanding their knowledge of their natural environment. That natural environment is threatened by massive hydropower developments in the Dzongu region, the section of Sikkim sacred to the Lepchas next to Mt. Kanchenjunga.

The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization based in California, seeks to coordinate and develop standards so that all written human languages can ultimately be represented and manipulated in a consistent fashion on computers. The goal is to make the transliteration schemes compatible in a multilingual environment. Many older character encoding schemes are incompatible with one another, a failing that the Unicode initiative will correct as languages are added to it. The unified character sets have been widely implemented in internationally-used computer software programs.

While numerous major languages have been accepted into the Unicode standards, many of the world’s lesser-known scripts have still not been encoded, for various technical and scholarly reasons. Scholarly communities need to agree on the details of representing the characters of a language before it can be added. Furthermore, artificial scripts, such as Klingon, used in the Star Trek film series, and the Middle-Earth languages invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, have not yet been accepted by the Unicode Consortium. The Consortium rejected the proposal of the Star Trek supporters as “inappropriate for encoding.” Evidently, Lepcha is appropriate.