It's been one of the great failings of the online world. Type out a domain name in something other than English letters in a navigation bar and you're likely to get the ubiquitous yellow warning sign with a "server not found" message.
But on Monday, the Internet came one step closer to becoming truly international. And it did so with the help of the unlikeliest of languages: Yiddish.
"Yiddish uses markings that are not used in Hebrew writing," said Tina Dam, international domain names director with the Marina del Rey-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). In choosing Yiddish, they are testing the system "as far out as we can, as complicated as it can be," she said.
When engineers first came up with the domain name system in the 1980s, they adopted the United States. ASCII characters, a code set based on the English alphabet, with upper and lower case letters, as well as the numbers zero through nine, the dot and the hyphen.
"They probably didn't anticipate the Internet to be a global functionality as it is today," Dam said.
ICANN, which assigns domain names and IP addresses, has come under fire in recent years from countries complaining that Internet domain names should be more inclusive of other writing systems. Out of more than 6,000 spoken languages in the world, 2,261 have a writing system.
In 2003, ICANN established a system whereby an individual or company could register a second-level domain in a language other than English, but you still had to switch back to the U.S. ASCII to write the top level. This made the multilingual amalgamation a dot-pain.
Domain names are broken down into three levels: third level, second level and top level. Using www.jewishjournal.com as an example -- "www" is the third level, "jewishjournal" is the second level and ".com" is the top level.
Last week ICANN launched a system whereby servers would also recognize internationalized labels in the second and top level of a domain name. Yiddish was among the 11 different writing systems tested because of its right-to-left nature and its orthography, which includes vowels, where written modern Hebrew often excludes them.
And the request to include Yiddish came from an unlikely source.
"Yiddish is considered a formal minority language in Sweden, and the Swedish registry operator had implemented Yiddish [as a second level] under dot-se," Dam said.
The public test launched by ICANN on Monday features the string "test.example" translated into Yiddish as well as 10 other new internationalized top-level domains, which in turn takes you to an introduction page written in that particular language.
The Yiddish and other domains are not yet available for registration, Dam says, adding that those responsible for formulating allocation plans need time to work out the logistics. She anticipates the new domains will be available at the earliest by mid-2008, at which point other languages will have been added.
"As soon as we're done with the test, the shop will be open for any language at the top level, as long as the technology supports it," she said.
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