In memoriam Minitel

Jean Véronis has drawn attention to the fact that SMS spelling can be used to query the Yellow Pages (YP) in France.

Prsone n sembl lavoir remarqué, mè dps qque tems, les paj j0nes kompren le langaj texto: on peu cherché 1 6né, alle bwar 1 Kfé, etc.

He uses the example of ‘6né’ (which, being translated, as the Bible puts it, works out as follows: six-né = by pronunciation ‘ci-né’ = cinema = film theaters)

The input spelling system works largely on the basis of homophones for number words (1=un, 2 = deux, etc) and names of letters (k= ka, so a Kashmir restaurant will become kshmir…).

It also works for the English language version of the same YP website. I got the following:

‘2mbstones’ correctly returned “graves and cemeteries”

‘kidz’ delivered a variety of children-related addresses,

‘eats’ gave me restaurants and grocery stores, and

‘10sion’ more subtly got me doctors and scientific R&D agencies.

However, a cis-atlantic ’‘lorry’ correctly returned a page about ‘camions’, but a transatlantic ‘trucks’ only found an off-wicket ‘rolling stock’.

I have no idea how generalized such SMS-type search phenomena may be for Yellow Pages around the world, where English versions doubtless outnumber other languages whenever a local YP is globalized. But in the case of France, it is not simply the recent SMS trend but the singular history of Minitel that lies behind much of the language technology that enables the stenographic spelling queries that Véronis noted.

Minitel was a pre-web videotext system embodied in a small beige monitor with an ABC (rather than a more standard AZERTY ) keyboard delivered free of charge to millions of French phone subscribers in the late 1980s. It was initially designed as an interface to a massive database of French phone numbers in order to digitally replace the hugely expensive print version of the YP.

But almost immediately after it was rolled out, smart folk (remember William (Neuromancer) Gibson’s “the street finds uses for technology…”) realized that, telecommunicationally speaking, the Minitel protocol enabled network communications, not simply queries to a big database. Chat and dating services suddenly flourished like capotes anglaises around the trees in Bois de Boulogne on a Saturday night. And since users were paying France Telecom the price of a regular phone call (only dialup in those days), they inevitably invented a slimmed down French spelling system to make the time spent online more productive. Using abbreviations very similar to those described by Véronis today. frantic “Minitel rose” cruisers nearly two decades ago pretty much premiered much of the mobile keyboard idiom that has been reinvented today.

As far as I know, the French language engineering company ERLI (then run by Bernard Normier who now heads Lingway) was responsible for developing the language processing technology that deployed phonetics and semantics (thesauri etc) to deliver what at the time was almost certainly the world’s most advanced natural language interface for a consumer search product. Alas, by the mid 1990s, the global Internet tsunami had left France’s Minitel network stranded on an island of obsolete protocols. Yet this same technology managed to migrate successfully to the web and still drives the bilingual system we use today. 

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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