Accents & Punctuation: January 2008 Archives

Does English Need Unicode?


Traditional wisdom holds that ASCII or maybe ANSI (ISO-8859-1) is sufficient for English and that it's not a language that needs any Unicode support. But is this actually true?

It's certainly not true in any higher education environment where not only do we work with foreign languages, but also mathematical symbols, including the obscure ones. Any time an institution needs to build an archive for an ancient language or math/science, the problem of encoding will rear its ugly little head. Ironically, it may be the classicists, medievalists and comparative literature specialists (fields which are not traditionally not seen as high tech) who have had the most experience with working the Unicode issue.

Is it just some scholars in exotic languages or physics then? Alas not. Many of the carefully crafted punctuation symbols that are appreciated by copy writers and desktop publishers everywhere are ALSO in Unicode. These include the em-dash (—), the en-dash (–), the Euro sign (€) and Smart Quotes “ and ”. There are some kluges in "ISO-8859-1" for some of these symbols...but not all of them. If you want these to work reliably, it's best to select Unicode (UTF-8) and say you're using Unicode!

Even the "foreign" accents work their way into our prose. Once it was just fiancé and José, but now it's even baseball players like Magglio Ordóñez (the "Big Tilde"). If you check out Ordóñez's uniform, you'll see that even his uniform has a tilde on his name. As we gradually learn to embrace some non-Anglo culture and wish to "get it right", the need for spelling with appropriate accents will continue to rise.

In fact, it's amazing that every office I've ever been to, I've had someone ask me how to insert some "exotic" symbol into some document. So yes...even English needs Unicode support to express the full range of textual possibilities.


About The Blog

I am a Penn State technology specialist with a degree in linguistics and have maintained the Penn State Computing with Accents page since 2000.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage ( for a profile.


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