October 7th, 2003

Curiouser and curiouser: Strange Women and Microsoft

This morning, I got a phone call from an unidentified number. A woman confessed that she has read my little page explaining how to put Hebrew diacritics (nikkud) into documents in Windows. That page includes my phone number, as it is primarily meant for Project Ben-Yehuda volunteers who need the information and may require my help. Over time, this page generated quite a few phone calls from people unrelated to the BY project, as it has become a rather popular resource about diacritics in Word. More on this later.

Anyhow, the woman did not want technical help with inserting diacritics, but with figuring out the proper diacritics for a phrase she wanted to diacriticize. The phrase was מספרת ילדים ונוער, Hebrew for "Children and Youth Hair Salon". It took me a moment to realize that what she's asking me to do is provide her with the actual correct diacritics, but that was indeed what she wanted. She did not bother to introduce herself, by the way. Understand (ye non-Hebrew readers), some diacritics in modern Hebrew are redundant (i.e. denote the same sound), and although there are certainly broad guidelines, many many anomalies and special cases exist, and it takes a real grammar expert to properly diacriticize anything that's put in front of him. I'm far from a grammar expert, certainly as far as diacritics are concerned. Nevertheless, I did know how to diacriticize this particular phrase, so I dictated it to her: "מ"ם חרוקה, סמ"ך בשווא, פ"א דגושה וקמוצה" etc.

That was weird. After writing it all down, she hesitated for half a moment, and then asked: "So, are you a Hebrew grammar teacher?" (she actually used the feminine form of teacher, despite my pre-morning-coffee profundo voice, presumably because in most Israelis' minds [and experience], most teachers are women, and grammar teachers are somehow always envisioned as women). I chuckled and said I'm far from it. "How, then, do you know diacritics so well?" she inquired. I replied that I don't, actually, and that I'm surprised she chose to call me (hint, hint), but that I try to help when I can, and in this particular instance, I could. She explained that she figured I'd either know myself or know whom to refer her to. Then she thanked me, and I was left to make my morning coffee.


The promised (much older) anecdote about the diacritics page's popularity is this: one day, this guy A. calls me up full of excitement about the BY project. Among other things, he says: "You would never believe how I found the project!" Now, people tell me all kinds of interesting tales on how word of mouth about the project reached them, but this was special: it turns out that A. called Microsoft Israel for support for Word, because he wanted to add diacritics to a Yiddish text he was editing, and didn't know how to do it.

Diacritics are probably the worst-documented feature in Windows. Technically, it's not a Word feature at all, but a Windows feature: you can add diacritics in Notepad as well. Practically, people don't try to add diacritics in Notepad; on the rare occasions they want diacritics, they want them in Word. Word should have included a prominent help page explaining this. It either doesn't, or too few people RTFM.

Be that as it may, the Microsoft Customer Service Representative kindly referred A. to my humble page. Is that ridiculous or what? Both Windows and Word are their products, this guy is their client, he calls for support: you would expect that they would either tell him to read the fine manual, or give him the information he needs directly. But instead, the CSR dictated a URL to A., and so A. found out about the project.

I am quite amused, to this day, that Microsoft could not be bothered to create a better Web page explaining this than mine, which was created in two-minutes and declares that fact openly in its title. Funny old world.
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