Does the internet understand your language?

I heard an advertisement on the radio this morning where a son is talking to his father about some commercial service. He points the dad to the web address, and—since the ad is in Afrikaans and he spells the address in English—mentions “Die internet verstaan nie Afrikaans nie” (“The internet doesn’t understand Afrikaans”). I’m thinking of the reasons why whoever wrote the ad felt it would somehow improve things to add that bit to the copy.

Of course, I mostly agree—the Internet doesn’t understand Afrikaans, but neither does it understand English or any other language. Maybe the organisation just feels a bit bad that they don’t have an Afrikaans presence on the web, or might not even know how easy it is to register another domain name as an alias to their main website.

On the other hand, software processing information on the web is able to do amazing things with the information on the web—in English, Afrikaans and other languages. I’m not trying to belittle the fact that the technology support for languages are not equal, but domain names are just characters—you can type in whatever you want (the complexities of International Domain Names ignored for now).

Working with language data is my bread and butter, so it was an unfortunate reminder of the common perceptions about language and technology. I hope some people listening to that questioned it, or at least started thinking about how it could be changed.