Alphabet Soup: The Internationalization of Linux, Part 2

Mr. Turnbull takes a look at the problems faced with different character sets and the need for standardization.
Content Negotiation

As yet, there are no general standards, but HTTP 1.1 is an example of a protocol that provides facilities for the browser and server to negotiate the type of content to be provided. In particular, the browser can automatically specify the language and preferred encoding of content. The server may ignore this, if content in that language is unavailable. This method is certainly more convenient for users than providing links to translations in various languages.

Another example of content negotiation is provided by the MIME multipart/alternative format. This format allows the same content to be presented in several ways. For example, a mail message can be formatted as both plain text and as HTML. Many UNIX mail user agents do not understand HTML, but Netscape certainly does. This allows “dumb” MUAs (or people who hate HTML e-mail) with a minimal understanding of MIME to read the e-mail as plain text, while those using Netscape to read their mail get the (dubious, in my opinion) benefit of the HTML presentation.


These two articles have presented an overview of the principles of internationalization. It hasn't been brief, but it is hardly complete or comprehensive. Linux is now in fairly good shape with respect to the basic facilities for internationalization with the wide dissemination of GNU libc version 2 (usually known on Linux systems as glibc or libc6).

A few issues still remain to be worked out, especially with respect to Asian languages. We can expect the standards to become more comprehensive over time. For example, locales may deal with line wrapping conventions, or the locale model may be extended to support multilingual applications directly.

However, the main effort today must be on the part of applications programmers and multilingual volunteers. Applications programmers need to use the POSIX locale facilities and GNU gettext to internationalize their programs. Multilingual volunteers should join the GNU translation project and help translate message catalogs for their favorite programs.


Stephen Turnbull ( is an economist teaching and researching in Japan. He is excited about the way the Open-Source movement is turning conventional economics on its head, but is too busy playing with his Linux systems to do much economic analysis.