From Autobús to Żółw
Supporting more European languages on Medium
There is a poster hanging at Medium headquarters, in that corner of our office we dedicated to celebrating typography. It’s a replica of John Rieben’s design from 1966. I put it there deliberately. It is a beautiful poster speaking to two beautiful notions: that it only takes a handful of letters to represent the entirety of human knowledge and emotion… and that taking care of this handful of letters is of utmost importance.
It’s a beautiful poster. It is also horribly shortsighted. Because there are many, many more letters, and there are many, many more alphabets.
Alphabets come in different forms and shapes. Pick anything you know of English that you assume is a constant, and a language or two will turn it on its head. Twenty-six characters? Some alphabets have hundreds. Writing left to right? Languages go from right to left, top to bottom, or even somewhere in between. Spaces between words? Optional. Even simple rules like lowercase i becoming uppercase I aren’t always true, not to mention alphabets themselves are not the only way to write.
Supporting all languages, ever, is very, very hard — you could even say impossible. We’ve been doing a mixed job of that on Medium, and the biggest problem we faced were that many languages — most of them European — use alphabets similar to English, but add a few extra letters.
Those extra letters did not look very good:
If you don’t know any of those languages, an equivalent would be something in English — for example, that one time Einstein was talking about cats — looking like this:
It looks grotesque, a ransom-letter situation that doesn’t exactly make you feel your writing is taken good care of.
Needless to say, we have received the most feedback on this issue than we’ve ever gotten on anything related to typography.
Some of the feedback was straightforward:
There were many more reactions. Some angry. Some impatient. Some… surprisingly touching. All understandable.
This was a hard technical problem for us — much harder than you can imagine, given you have seen many places supporting your language of choice flawlessly for years. Our rock was that Medium is a platform — we can’t just optimize for one language at the expense of others. Our hard place? We care about typography. There are easy solutions to this problem — one would be just switching to Times New Roman — but we’re not interested in them.
I’ve been working on fixing this problem pretty much ever since I joined Medium 1½ years ago. This is the third or fourth approach we tried. But today, finally, I’m proud to announce that Medium supports proper typography for European languages.
There is still work to do. There will always be work to do. But as of right now, you can write an aphorism in Azerbaijani, a column in Croatian, an essay in Estonian, a homily in Hungarian, a memoir in Maltese, a novella in Norwegian, a poem in Polish, a screenplay in Slovenian, a sonnet in Swedish, a treatise in Turkish, or, well… write whatever you want in Welsh.
We’ll do our best to treat it well when you write and when others read, regardless of whether you’re using a browser or our iPhone or Android apps, in all of those alphabets, and many more. I myself celebrated this occasion by writing about a Turkish typewriter and a vintage clock displayed on my childhood TV, and even resurrecting one of the first articles I ever published in Polish. I’ll be curious to know what you come up with.
My full name reads Marcin Kazimierz Stanisław Wichary. The story behind it is almost as long as the name itself, somewhere at the intersection of Poland’s monarchy, my family’s tradition, and Roman Catholic rites of passage.
Up until today, it was not possible to write my full name properly on Medium. That one unusual letter lurking in my third name — ł — would either show up mutated in a wrong font, or I had to substitute it with another letter, l (which looks similar but is pronounced very differently):
The inability to write your name properly might not even register as a problem if you grew up with the same language most technology grows up with. But to many, and to me, it’s a big deal.
We work to make Medium the best place that respects writers and their writing. I’ve been inspired when my co-workers put amazing effort into defining how we want Medium to feel, adding support for expressive licensing, or introducing blocking of abusive people much earlier than anyone expected us to.
Today’s fix to our biggest typographical and internationalization issue is my small contribution to making Medium respect your writing better.
Marcin Kazimierz Stanisław Wichary