What is Unicode? Part I

If you type in Greek and Hebrew—or plan to or should—you need to know about Unicode. What is Unicode?

Maybe the simplest answer is this: Unicode is a way to type in any human script—from Sanskrit to Greek, from Cyrillic to Hebrew—without changing the font you’re using.

Unicode solves a problem created by previous workarounds for typing, let’s say, in Greek. Let’s take the BibleWorks Greek font—which I’ve used for years—as our representative of the old-way-of-doing-things (this is no reflection on BibleWorks, my favorite software for exegesis!): If I want an alpha in the BW Greek font, I type “a” and I get this character: α. Natural enough. But what if I want a final sigma (ς)? I can’t use “s” like I can for regular sigma (σ). BW chose to map that to “j.” Fine again. But how about accents? Cleverly, the BW Greek font made it possible to use a forward slash (”/”) to set an accent over the previous letter. As long as I don’t lose the BibleWorks Greek font, I’ll always be able to read the polytonic (accented) Greek I typed out in class in 2002.

But what if I send that document to a friend who doesn’t have the BibleWorks Greek font? He’ll have to download the font, unless he wants to see “avsfaltw,seij” instead of “ἀσφαλτώσεις.” Again, fine. The font is free, after all, so my friends have downloaded it several times over the years.

But what if I put my document on the Net? Now we’re in trouble. It’s just not feasible to expect everyone to be downloading extra fonts for Greek, Hebrew, Cyrllic, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Ol Chiki!

Enter Unicode. Every Unicode font has more than just the normal English (called “Latin”) characters, A–Z. Depending on the font, you’ve got any number of other scripts. If someone doesn’t have your particular font, he’s fine as long as he has Unicode—and all computers nowadays do.

Here are just a few of the scripts available in a Unicode table:

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In Part II of this exciting series on computer fonts (*yawn*), we’ll get a little more specific!

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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