In Pursuit of Laziness

Manish Goregaokar’s blog

Breaking Our Latin-1 Assumptions

So in my previous post I explored a specific (wrong) assumption that programmers tend to make about the nature of code points and text.

I was asked multiple times about other assumptions we tend to make. There are a lot. Most Latin-based scripts are simple, but most programmers spend their time dealing with Latin text so these complexities never come up.

I thought it would be useful to share my personal list of scripts that break our Latin-1 assumptions. This is a list I mentally check against whenever I am attempting to reason about text. I check if I’m making any assumptions that break in these scripts. Most of these concepts are independent of Unicode; so any program would have to deal with this regardless of encoding.

I again recommend going through eevee’s post, since it covers many related issues. Awesome-Unicode also has a lot of random tidbits about Unicode.

Anyway, here’s the list. Note that a lot of the concepts here exist in scripts other than the ones listed, these are just the scripts I use for comparing.

Arabic / Hebrew

Both Arabic and Hebrew are RTL scripts; they read right-to-left. This may even affect how a page is laid out, see the Hebrew Wikipedia.

They both have a concept of letters changing how they look depending on where they are in the word. Hebrew has the “sofit” letters, which use separate code points. For example, Kaf (כ) should be typed as ך at the end of a word. Greek has something similar with the sigma.

In Arabic, the letters can have up to four different forms, depending on whether they start a word, end a word, are inside a word, or are used by themselves. These forms can look very different. They don’t use separate code points for this; however. You can see a list of these forms here

As I mentioned in the last post, U+FDFD (﷽), a ligature representing the Basamala, is also a character that breaks a lot of assumptions.

Indic scripts

Indic scripts are abugidas, where you have consonants with vowel modifiers. For example, क is “kə”, where the upside down “e” is a schwa, something like an “uh” vowel sound. You can change the vowel by adding a diacritic (e.g ); getting things like का (“kaa”) को (“koh”) कू (“koo”).

You can also mash together consonants to create consonant clusters. The “virama” is a vowel-killer symbol that removes the inherent schwa vowel. So, + becomes क्. This sound itself is unpronounceable since क is a stop consonant (vowel-killed consonants can be pronounced for nasal and some other consonants though), but you can combine it with another consonant, as क् + (“rə”), to get क्र (“krə”). Consonants can be strung up infinitely, and you can stick one or more vowel diacritics after that. Usually, you won’t see more than two consonants in a cluster, but larger ones are not uncommon in Sanskrit (or when writing down some onomatopoeia). They may not get rendered as single glyphs, depending on the font.

One thing that crops up is that there’s no unambiguous concept of a letter here. There is a concept of an “akshara”, which basically includes the vowel diacritics, and depending on who you talk to may also include consonant clusters. Often things are clusters an akshara depending on whether they’re drawn with an explicit virama or form a single glyph.

In general the nature of the virama as a two-way combining character in Unicode is pretty new.

Hangul

Korean does its own fun thing when it comes to conjoining characters. Hangul has a concept of a “syllable block”, which is basically a letter. It’s made up of a leading consonant, medial vowel, and an optional tail consonant. 각 is an example of such a syllable block, and it can be typed as ᄀ + ᅡ + ᆨ. It can also be typed as 각, which is a “precomposed form” (and a single code point).

These characters are examples of combining characters with very specific combining rules. Unlike accents or other diacritics, these combining characters will combine with the surrounding characters only when the surrounding characters form an L-V-T or L-V syllable block.

As I mentioned in my previous post, apparently syllable blocks with more (adjacent) Ls, Vs, and Ts are also valid and used in Old Korean, so the grapheme segmentation algorithm in Unicode considers “ᄀᄀᄀ각ᆨᆨ” to be a single grapheme (it explicitly mentions this). I’m not aware of any fonts which render these as a single syllable block, or if that’s even a valid thing to do.

Han scripts

So Chinese (Hanzi), Japanese (Kanji1), Korean (Hanja2), and Vietnamese (Hán tự, along with Chữ Nôm 3) all share glyphs, collectively called “Han characters” (or CJK characters4). These languages at some point in their history borrowed the Chinese writing system, and made their own changes to it to tailor to their needs.

Now, the Han characters are ideographs. This is not a phonetic script; individual characters represent words. The word/idea they represent is not always consistent across languages. The pronounciation is usually different too. Sometimes, the glyph is drawn slightly differently based on the language used. There are around 80,000 Han ideographs in Unicode right now.

The concept of ideographs itself breaks some of our Latin-1 assumptions. For example, how do you define Levenshtein edit distance for text using Han ideographs? The straight answer is that you can’t, though if you step back and decide why you need edit distance you might be able to find a workaround. For example, if you need it to detect typos, the user’s input method may help. If it’s based on pinyin or bopomofo, you might be able to reverse-convert to the phonetic script, apply edit distance in that space, and convert back. Or not. I only maintain an idle curiosity in these scripts and don’t actually use them, so I’m not sure how well this would work.

The concept of halfwidth character is a quirk that breaks some assumptions.

In the space of Unicode in particular, all of these scripts are represented by a single set of ideographs. This is known as “Han unification”. This is a pretty controversial issue, but the end result is that rendering may sometimes be dependent on the language of the text, which e.g. in HTML you set with a <span lang=whatever>. The wiki page has some examples of encoding-dependent characters.

Unicode also has a concept of variation selector, which is a code point that can be used to select between variations for a code point that has multiple ways of being drawn. These do get used in Han scripts.

While this doesn’t affect rendering, Unicode, as a system for describing text, also has a concept of interlinear annotation characters. These are used to represent furigana / ruby. Fonts don’t render this, but it’s useful if you want to represent text that uses ruby. Similarly, there are ideographic description sequences which can be used to “build up” glyphs from smaller ones when the glyph can’t be encoded in Unicode. These, too, are not to be rendered, but can be used when you want to describe the existence of a character like biáng. These are not things a programmer needs to worry about; I just find them interesting and couldn’t resist mentioning them :)

Japanese speakers haven’t completely moved to Unicode; there are a lot of things out there using Shift-JIS, and IIRC there are valid reasons for that (perhaps Han unification?). This is another thing you may have to consider.

Finally, these scripts are often written vertically, top-down. Mongolian, while not being a Han script, is written vertically sideways, which is pretty unique. The CSS writing modes spec introduces various concepts related to this, though that’s mostly in the context of the Web.

Thai / Khmer / Burmese / Lao

These scripts don’t use spaces to split words. Instead, they have rules for what kinds of sequences of characters start and end a word. This can be determined programmatically, however IIRC the Unicode spec does not attempt to deal with this. There are libraries you can use here instead.

Latin scripts themselves!

Turkish is a latin-based script. But it has a quirk: The uppercase of “i” is a dotted “İ”, and the lowercase of “I” is “ı”. If doing case-based operations, try to use a Unicode-aware library, and try to provide the locale if possible.

Also, not all code points have a single-codepoint uppercase version. The eszett (ß) capitalizes to “SS”. There’s also the “capital” eszett ẞ, but its usage seems to vary and I’m not exactly sure how it interacts here.

While Latin-1 uses precomposed characters, Unicode also introduces ways to specify the same characters via combining diacritics. Treating these the same involves using the normalization algorithms (NFC/NFD).

Emoji

Well, not a script5. But emoji is weird enough that it breaks many of our assumptions. The scripts above cover most of these, but it’s sometimes easier to think of them in the context of emoji.

The main thing with emoji is that you can use a zero-width-joiner character to glue emoji together.

For example, the family emoji 👩‍👩‍👧‍👦 (may not render for you) is made by using the woman/man/girl/boy emoji and gluing them together with ZWJs. You can see its decomposition in uniview.

There are more sequences like this, which you can see in the emoji-zwj-sequences file. For example, MAN + ZWJ + COOK will give a male cook emoji (font support is sketchy). Similarly, SWIMMER + ZWJ + FEMALE SIGN is a female swimmer. You have both sequences of the form “gendered person + zwj + thing”, and “emoji containing human + zwj + gender”, IIRC due to legacy issues6

There are also modifier characters that let you change the skin tone of an emoji that contains a human (or human body part, like the hand-gesture emojis) in it.

Finally, the flag emoji are pretty special snowflakes. For example, 🇪🇸 is the Spanish flag. It’s made up of two regional indicator characters for “E” and “S”.

Unicode didn’t want to deal with adding new flags each time a new country or territory pops up. Nor did they want to get into the tricky business of determining what a country is, for example when dealing with disputed territories. So instead, they just defined these regional indicator symbols. Fonts are supposed to take pairs of RI symbols7 and map the country code to a flag. This mapping is up to them, so it’s totally valid for a font to render a regional indicator pair “E” + “S” as something other than the flag of Spain. On some Chinese systems, for example, the flag for Taiwan (🇹🇼) may not render.


I hightly recommend comparing against this relatively small list of scripts the next time you are writing code that does heavy manipulation of user-provided strings.


  1. Supplemented (but not replaced) by the Hiragana and Katakana phonetic scripts. In widespread use.

  2. Replaced by Hangul in modern usage

  3. Replaced by chữ quốc ngữ in modern usage, which is based on the Latin alphabet

  4. “CJK” (Chinese-Japanese-Korean) is probably more accurate here, though it probably should include “V” for Vietnamese too. Not all of these ideographs come from Han; the other scripts invented some of their own. See: Kokuji, Gukja, Chữ Nôm.

  5. Back in my day we painstakingly typed actual real words on numeric phone keypads, while trudging to 🏫 in three feet of ❄️️, and it was uphill both ways, and we weren’t even allowed 📱s in 🏫. Get off my lawn!

  6. We previously had individual code points for professions and stuff and they decided to switch over to using existing object emoji with combiners instead of inventing new profession emoji all the time

  7. 676 countries should be enough for anybody