Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Typing in Unicode


The kind folks at the Unicode Consortium have acted as the referees for the font world by creating a consistent system by which a variety of fonts may represent a variety of characters and symbols in a uniform way. As long as a computer has an up-to-date unicode font, it should be able to display text written in unicode, even if it does not have that same font in which the text was written.

The trouble lies in actually typing the characters because our keyboards are often set for the typical Latin fonts (e.g. English, French, German, etc...). To type unicode characters beyond those on your keyboard, one needs to have an alternate (digital) keyboard layout available. Stefan Hagel has created a program called Multi Key which works well in Microsoft Word for a variety of languages germane to TC (Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, etc...). “But,” you say, “I really want to type in Coptic!” Donald Mastronarde has created a keyboard layout which may be used with greatest success in Microsoft Notepad to input Coptic characters (some, like ϭ, will not show in Microsoft Word).

Interested persons will probably want to acquire the New Athena Unicode font (which has encoding for the biblical languages) and may want to install the Arial Unicode MS font (which, though massive in size, has encoding for just about everything).


  1. I don't recommend using Arial Unicode at all. The spacing is terrible, and the glyphs ugly. It was never intended as a standard use font, but rather as a proof-of-concept font (from what I understand). There are other good options for inputting Unicode. On Windows, Keyman is the best I've found for Greek and Hebrew. On Mac, support is built in for OS X, but the keyboards are not intuitive for English typists. I've created my own which follows the Classical Greek keyboard (Lopez) that I use with Keyman on Windows. I've written up a fairly extensive discussion of using Unicode for biblical studies. You can find it here:
    (That URL will change sometime late Feb/early March, so use www.NTResources.com as a long term link; the Unicode material will be on the page indexed as "Fonts."

  2. I have posted recently about how to write Hebrew in OpenOffice under Linux using the SBL Hebrew Unicode Font as well as how to learn the Israeli keyboard (http://www.echoofeden.com/digest/). Linux utilizes Unicode automatically--both in its English and its Hebrew keyboards. OpenOffice can easily run in Windows (although Vista may reject its installation or prevent its operation...)

  3. I use NeoOffice to edit Greek on OSX all the time. (NeoOffice is a native+Java OSX port of OpenOffice.) I have been using GentiumAlt as my font, because it looks fairly nice and uses a curved circumflex instead of a tilde, which I prefer.

  4. Rod: I have not yet had any spacing issues with Arial Unicode MS (at least not with Greek), but the characters are very grainy which makes it a poor font for actual use. The beauty of the font is that it has so many characters available. Just in case you come across some Hieroglyphs or Chinese... : ) When I type something up, I am more apt to put it in New Athena as it can handle all the languages in which I am currently working and looks nice. Thanks for the mention of Keyman which is probably a superior alternative to Multi Key for someone solely interested in Greek and Hebrew.

    SoO and Joey: Thanks for the Linux and OSX comments, topics not covered in my post.

  5. Christian, although Arial Unicode MS covers a large range of fonts, it only covers Unicode 3.1 if I remember correctly, and it is certainly not up to date with the latest versions of Unicode. This means that it is lacking several Greek characters which have been added to Unicode, such as the kai symbol and the archaic koppa, as well as a variety of symbols; similarly it is lacking several recently added Hebrew characters; it is lacking the new Coptic block, which should be used for Coptic in preference to the old version which mixes the Greek and Coptic alphabets; and it is lacking Syriac, Gothic, and perhaps other scripts of interest to textual critics. There is in fact no one font which will cover all of Unicode (not least because this is technically impossible), but probably the nearest you can get to one is Code2000, which is shareware costing just $5. However, what is really recommended is that you use a suitable specific font for each of the scripts you work with.