Internet signs of the decline and fall of the Roman empire

THE use of scripts other than Roman characters to register top-level domain names was recently sanctioned by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), a non-profit body overseeing web addresses.

But less attention has been paid to developments in Europe where accented characters have been used in international domain names for the past few years. This is of concern because it shows a lack of awareness of the influence that factors outwith the Anglophone world may have on business.

From a trading perspective, it seems clear this change will have two major effects: there is likely to be an increase in the number of domain names taken up and most will be used in trade; and, second, they will probably be taken up disproportionately by native speakers of languages that do not use Roman script. These include Russian, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Hindi and Arabic, but they also include European languages that use a different, if Latin-based, alphabet such as Portuguese, but also French and German.

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There are around 2.5 million domain names with the suffix .ru and this is expected to rise dramatically as the restriction imposed by Roman script is lifted. Just as countries such as South Korea and Japan or regions in Africa and the Middle East use non-Roman characters, a remarkable number of Russian web users were familiar with neither Roman characters nor rules to convert Russian ones.

Now that all countries can write their URL addresses in their own languages, this decision is an important step for the internationalisation of the net, according to one commentator, who said the days have passed when people who do not understand Roman alphabet cannot use the internet.

Until now, users in all these regions have had to modify their natural behaviour to enter domain names in address boxes, and even modify their company name to, comply with convention. Germany's Mller had to be transcribed to for internet use.

Another less obvious development is potentially of more consequence for our trading position. According to CILT, the National Centre for Languages, English usage on the net has fallen from 51 per cent in 2000 to 29 per cent today. In the same period, a similar decline in the value of global GDP where English was the medium of trade has been observed.

Given that less than 6 per cent of world population speak English as a first language, and less than 25 per cent speak any English at all, the pointers imply a continuing, perhaps accelerating, reduction in the proportion of net traffic using English.

While the net is expanding rapidly in developing economies, it should be remembered that UK/US culture, and language, is considered less "cool" in many parts of the world (especially the major growth zones) than it was only a decade ago. Icann's recognition of non-Roman script arguably nails the assertion that "they all speak English!" They don't. And increasingly, even if they do, they don't necessarily want to, and are less willing to too.

Eliminating this fundamental barrier to communication will open up expanding markets, but may leave "opportunist" exporters foundering in a shrinking pool.

It may be time for those among the 80 per cent of UK export managers who cannot conduct dealings in even one foreign language to "wake up and smell the coffee".

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Of the 1.6 billion internet users worldwide, more than half use languages that have scripts that are not Latin-based

This recent change in communications is not a technological advance seeking a market: it is in response to a long-repressed demand from users who want a more "friendly" interface with the net, at the keyboard, where they access it. There is nothing to suggest the millions who will be empowered by this simple change will use the net any less for communications, research, surfing … or shopping, at a domestic or corporate level.

Companies that are serious about international trading, perhaps as a way out of recession, should be encouraged to review their communications channels or they may have more than ample time to reflect at perhaps enforced leisure that even an information superhighway has a slow lane.

• Ian Watson is a senior consultant at CMF Consulting, export marketing and multilingual communications consultants.

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