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Save the Māori people!

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It's a catastrophe in the making. The Māori people are disappearing at an alarming rate and now teeter on the edge of extinction. And it's not because of war or disease. Nor is it due to any random acts of God, like an erupting volcano or plunging comet. And it’s not because of acculturation, a reason far less ominous and more understandable though no less acceptable. No, the answer is much more pedestrian. It can be traced, in fact, to a source most would consider beneficial if not indispensable, a source that can be found on the other side of the globe. The Māori people are disappearing because Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, the creator of the world's most widely used computer operating system, is not acting in an enlightened or responsible manner in regards to upgrading its physical QWERTY PC keyboard.

Now, the backstory to this travesty: The Māoris rely on the macron to encode and decode their language. The macron, according to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is a diacritical mark ¯ which "is placed over a vowel to indicate that the vowel is long or placed over a syllable or used alone to indicate a stressed or long syllable in a metrical foot." For most of us, the macron is as important as pocket fluff. But for the Māoris, it is as essential to the survival of their language—and by extension, to their culture—as water and air.

For example: In Te Reo Māori, the language used by the Māori people, a macron indicates vowel length. Some words spelled the same have different meanings according to their vowel length. E.g., āna means "here is" or "behold." Āna te tangata! ("Behold, the man!'). Ana, with no macron, means "a cave." Here's a few other interesting Māori words, hyperlinked to an audio pronunciation (italicized comments will follow each entry):

Whaikōrero: the art and practice of speechmaking. The irony here is how can one even make a speech if one doesn't have the language to do so? 

Ngāi Tātou: a term for everyone present—"we all." Without the macron, NO ONE'S HERE!

Ō: of; many names begin with Ō, meaning "the place of so-and-so," e.g., Ōkahukura, Ōkiwi, Ōhau.  And but that's okay because without a macron NO place exists for anyone to NOT be here. 

ū: breast; wai-ū: breast-milk. Without the latter, I wouldn't be here; without the former, doubt that I'd want to be.

Historically for the Māori people, and for just about everyone else, the process of adding a macron to text has been nigh impossible. (When's the last time you fiddled with Microsoft's character map on your keyboard?) But a glimmer of hope appeared with the advent of mobile phones and tablets, viz. simple keystroke gestures on virtual keyboards that allowed for easy access to diacritical marks. Unfortunately, these advancements did little to assuage the problem, but instead only highlighted it. A simple examination of OS usage shows why: While Android and iOS operating systems comprise 89% of the market share on mobile devices, over 91% of the 278 million desktops and laptops still employ old Windows-based QWERTY hardware keyboards and their backward, clumsy mechanisms for invoking Unicode in order to add a diacritical mark. This is especially pertinent for the younger generations of Māoris, those charged with keeping the culture alive, where speed and easy access are critical to a technology's continued usage. It's almost a given that laziness and mass-ADHD are hallmarks of the Millennials; if an application isn't fast, it isn't used. If the macron is difficult to access and employ, as it now is on a physical keyboard, the practice of using it will be discarded. And without the macron, the Māori culture will fail. And without a culture, they will perish.

But all of this begs the question: Why? Why is it so important to save the Māori people? Why is so important for Microsoft to save an ethnic group that comprises only (≅) .00008% of the world's population?

Well, for one thing, the Māoris are just plain cool. How bereft the world would be without tattoos (the Polynesian word tatau means "to wring moisture from," as in ink from the skin. [Samoans claim the word came from the Fijians; the Fijians claim it came from the the Samoans; and the Māoris claim it came from the underworld!]) And while skin art may not have originated with them, it was indeed popularized and exported (via Capt. James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and others) beginning in 1769 to the West. And where would the rugby universe be without these ferocious Māori warrior/players? And who can forget the haka?

But more to the point, by adding an easily accessible macron to their hardware keyboard, Microsoft would be one of the few corporations to embed a purely Kantian directive in its mission statement, one not so obviously PC (politically correct) motivated—though to be sure Microsoft would reap a huge smiley face market boost were it to present (and subtly promote) this implementation as an ethical imperative. Plus, in addition to saving the Māoris, there would be the collateral benefit of cultural reparations as well—Microsoft's (small) way of making up for the sins of their (white) forefathers who were all but responsible for decimating the culture in the first place. One way of looking at it is Microsoft has the ability to do for the Māori people what Homo sapiens could have done for the Neandertals (or, for that matter, for the Denisova hominins) but didn't.

So why isn't Microsoft taking care of business? A close examination shows the answer may be threefold: First, Microsoft simply isn't aware of the impact this gap in technology is having on the Māoris. Due diligence in assessing customer needs has never been a strong point for the company, as evidenced by the introduction of Vista and Windows 8, to cite a couple examples. "Build it and they will come" has always been the corporate mantra, and only after the fact that their new technology is performing far less capably than desired (and after fielding customer complaints, for sure) are multiple patches and upgrades released that should have been incorporated in the product in the first place. Such is the case for their keyboards. While third party vendors have, without financial incentive, introduced both Latin and non-Latin keyboards amenable to languages as diverse as Faroese (45,000 speakers) and Inuktitut (35,000 speakers)—comprising ≅ 000006% and 000005% of the world population, respectively—the best Microsoft could do for the Māoris was to provide a link (found after an exhaustive web search) to something called the New Zealand Māori keyboard definition that was published in 2006 (no upgrades since then) and requires a download and allows for an easier but still cumbersome method for inputting macrons (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=21115)—which only proves that Microsoft must have been aware of the issue.

A plausible explanation, one which would give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, is that they were (and are) aware of it, but that present proprietary patents for easily accessible diacritical marks on hardware keyboards are owned by other companies and are so comprehensive and tightly secured that Microsoft is precluded from developing the technology—unless, of course, the cost was justifiable.

Which leads us to the third reason (and really—knowing how corporations operate in 21st century America—probably the most likely). Microsoft, in their corporate mindset, just can't validate the expense. Bottom line, the Māori people just aren't worth it.

But if Microsoft thinks this issue isn't important (despite the reasons argued above), and it is a tactical, corporate decision (for the logic reasoned above), then the question has got to be asked: what's next? Why wouldn't they just eliminate diacritical marks altogether and be done with it? After all, who, for the love of God, would be the worse for it?

Probably the French, for one. The Spanish. Any Cyrillic speaking cultures. Any culture that uses diacritical marks to make its language communicable, alive and vital. And last but not least—big gasp! here—linguists. Welcome to the vast power Microsoft has over the shape of the language landscape, power that if not wielded or considered carefully could lead to a subtle (or nefarious—who makes the decision?) manipulation of all that can and cannot be communicated, and what this all leads to, if drawn to its logical end, is either a direct or indirect quarantine of freedom of speech. (And not to dismiss this argument for the sake of fallacious reasoning, it’s smart to remember that a slippery slope argument is sometimes still a slippery slope!)

So in summation, Microsoft really needs to address this issue. And after addressing it, they need to correct it for the benefit of the Māoris and all of mankind. And if they don't, if they continue on their present course, our bottom line is we're all in a deep pile of…

Tūtae: excrement, ordure!

 

*One last remark: I have no motive or agenda in instigating this petition other than the aforementioned reasons. Let me be clear about this: my sole aim is to save the Māori people. But lest there be concern over a conflict of interest, and in the spirit of transparency, it must be disclosed that I own various web domains that a more amenable PC keyboard would abet through easier access and a higher SEO priority.  These domain names employ macrons as a design element—for example: bī.com, hī.com, pī.com, chīna.com, īreland.com, ībiza.com, mīcrosoft.com—a really cool TLD concept when you think about it. (That said, anyone interested in picking up these domains for website development, feel free to contact me through my registrar, Whois, this being the most expedient route.)



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