[tech-vi Announce List] Unicode Roman Numerals and Screen Readers – Terence Eden’s Blog
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From: David Goldfield <david.goldfield@...>
Date: Wed, Mar 15, 2023 at 9:42 PM
Subject: [tech-vi Announce List] Unicode Roman Numerals and Screen Readers – Terence Eden’s Blog
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Unicode Roman Numerals and Screen Readers
How would you read this sentence out aloud?
"In Hamlet, Act Ⅳ, Scene Ⅸ..."
Most people with a grasp of the interplay between English and Latin would say "In Hamlet, Act four, scene nine". And they'd be right! But screen-readers - computer programs which convert text into speech - often get this wrong.
Why? Well, because I didn't just type "Uppercase Letter i, Uppercase Letter v". Instead, I used the Unicode symbol for the Roman numeral 4 -
Unicode contains the range of Roman numbers from 1 - 10, plus a couple of compound numbers, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 - in a variety of forms.
Why does Unicode contain these number which, to most people, are just squashed together Latin letter? As ever with Unicode, it is a mix of legacy and practicality.
Far be it for me to disagree with the learned authors of the spec, but I think they may have erred slightly on this one. While it may be preferable to re-use Latin letters, it leads to ambiguity which can be confusing for a screen-reader.
Let's write out the numbers using regular letters. Suppose you were talking about "Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene I". Most screen readers will see the "III" and correctly speak aloud "Roman three" or similar. But when they get to the "I" it becomes ambiguous. Most will read out "Eye".
Screen-readers rarely look at the whole sentence for context. Which means they get confused. It's fairly obvious that XIV should be "fourteen" as there's no English word "xiv"1. But what about "MIX" - is that 1009 or the word "mix"?
Anyone who has watched the BBC knows about their fondness for displaying in Latin the year a programme was made. MCMXCVI is particularly challenging for a screen-reader!
I took the following sample sentence - using both letters and Roman numerals.
Here's how various services coped:
First, the good news. Amazon's Polly read the Roman numerals perfectly. It even pronounced
I tried with Microsoft Edge's Read Aloud TTS.
It and makes a bit of a hash of the English and just skips the Roman numerals.
The same was also true with Google's TTS products.
The venerable Linux utility came out with this.
It gets the "Capital i" incorrect, and reads the Roman numerals as their Unicode code points.
My good friend Léonie Watson who writes extensively about accessibility was kind enough to record some other samples for me.
Here are Jaws' "Expressive":
And Jaws' "Eloquence:
Léonie also provided a recording of NVDA Microsoft One Core
And here's Narrator making a right mess of it.
If you know of any other screen-readers, or text-to-speech engines which can cope with this, please let me know!
On Linux, I raised a Pull Request to fix espeak-ng.
The rest of the services don't seem to have a way to easily report bugs to them. If you know a way to raise issues with these screen readers - please do so!
Assistive Technology Specialist
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