Character Encoding and Digital Humanities in 2010 - An Insider's View

  1. 1. Deborah Anderson

    University of California Berkeley

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The world of character encoding in 2010
has changed significantly since TEI began
in 1987, thanks to the development and
adoption of Unicode (/ISO/IEC 10646) as the
international character encoding standard for
the electronic transmission of text. In December
2008, Unicode overtook all other encodings on
the Web, surpassing ASCII and the Western
European encodings (Davis 2009). As a result,
Unicode’s position seems to be increasingly
well-established, at least on the Web, and TEI
was prescient to advocate its use.
Over 100,000 characters are now defined
with Unicode 5.2, including significant Latin
additions for medievalists, a core set of Egyptian
hieroglyphs, and characters for over 75 scripts.
As such, Unicode presents a vast array of
character choices for the digital humanist, so
many that it can be difficult to figure out which
character – if any – is the appropriate one to
use. When working on a digital version of a Latin
text that contains Roman numerals, should text
encoder use U+2160 ROMAN NUMERAL ONE
one use the duplicate ASCII characters that are
located at U+FF01ff. (and why were they ever
approved)? These types of questions can create
confusion for text encoders.
The process of approving new characters by the
Unicode Technical Committee and the relevant
ISO committee is intended to be open, meaning
that scholars, representatives of companies and
national bodies, and other individuals may make
proposals and, to a certain extent, participate in
the process. Yet which characters get approved
– and which don’t – can still be baffling. On the
TEI-list, one member wrote on 1 August 2009:
"What is and isn't represented in unicode is
largely a haphazard mishmash of bias, accident
and brute-force normalisation. Unicode would
be dreadful, if it weren't for the fact that all the
alternatives are much worse."
This paper addresses the question of which
characters get approved and which don’t, by
examining the forces at work behind the scenes,
issues about which digital humanists may not
be aware. This talk, by a member of the two
standards committees on coded character sets,
is meant to give greater insight into character
encoding today, so that the character encoding
standard doesn’t seem like a confusing set
of decisions handed down from a faceless
group of non-scholars. Specific examples of the
issues will be given and the talk will end with
suggestions so that digital humanists, armed
with such information, will feel more confident
in putting forward proposals for needed, eligible
The Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) is
one of the two standards committees that
must approve all new characters. Since it is
composed primarily of industry representatives,
technical discussion often predominates at
meetings, including the question of whether
given characters (or scripts) can be supported
in current font technology and in software. For
the academic, the question of whether a given
character (or script) can be implemented in
current fonts/software is not one commonly
considered, and wouldn’t necessarily be known,
unless they attended the UTC meetings in
person. Also, the acceptance of characters can be
based on current Unicode policy or precedence
of earlier encoding decisions, which again is
often not known to outsiders. How to handle
historical ligatures, for example, has been
discussed and debated within UTC meetings,
but since the public minutes of the UTC do not
include the discussion surrounding a character
proposal, it may appear that the UTC is blind
to scholars’ concerns, which is frequently not
the case. In order to have a good chance at
getting a proposal approved in the UTC, it is
hence important for scholars to work with a
current member of the UTC who can trouble-
shoot proposals and act as an advocate in
the meetings, as well as explain concerns of
the committee and the reasoning behind their
The ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2 Working Group 2, a
working group on coded character sets, is the
second group that must approve characters.

This group is composed of national standards
body representatives. Unlike the UTC, the
WG2 is not primarily technical in nature,
as it is a forum where national standards
bodies can weigh in on character encoding
decisions. This group is more of a “United
Nations” of character encoding, with politics
playing a role. Discussion can, for example,
involve the names of characters and scripts,
which can vary by language and country, thus
causing disagreement among member bodies.
Like the other International Organization for
Standardization groups, decisions are primarily
done by consensus (International Organization
for Standardization, "My ISO Job: Guidance
for delegates and experts", 2009). This means
that within WG2, disagreements amongst
members can stall a particular character or
script proposal from being approved. For
example, a proposal for an early script used in
Hungary is currently held up in WG2, primarily
because there is disagreement between the
representatives from Austria (and Ireland)
and the representative from Hungary over
the name. To the scholar, accommodating
national standards body positions when making
encoding decisions may seem like unnecessary
interference from the political realm. Still,
diplomatic concerns need to be taken into
account in order for consensus to be reached
so proposals can be approved. Again, having
the support of one’s national body is a key
to successfully getting a character proposal
Since WG2 is a volunteer standards organization
within ISO, it relies on its members
to review proposals carefully, and submit
feedback. Unfortunately, many scholars don’t
participate in ISO, partly because it involves
understanding the international standard
development process, as well as a long-term
commitment – the entire approval process
can take at least two years. Another factor
that may explain the lack of regular academic
involvement is that scholars participating
in standards work typically do not receive
professional credit. Because there is not
much expert involvement in WG2 to review
documents (perhaps even fewer experts than
in the UTC), errors can creep in. For
many of the big historic East Asian script
proposals, for example, only a small handful
of people are reviewing the documents, which
is worrisome. The recently addition of CJK
characters (“Extension C”), which has 4,149
characters, could have benefited from more
scholarly review. Clearly there remains a critical
need for specialists to become involved in the
ISO Working Group 2, so as to prevent the
inclusion of errors in future versions of the
character encoding standard.
Besides the activity within each separate
standards group, there are developments
affecting both standards groups that may
not be known to digital humanists, but
which influence character encoding. New rules
have recently been proposed within ISO, for
example, which will slow the pace at which
new characters and scripts are approved by
ISO and published in
The Unicode Standard
(ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2 meeting, 2009). The new
rules will severely impact new character
requests. Another example of activity affecting
digital projects, particularly those using East
Asian characters, was the announcement in
October 2009 by the Japanese National
Body that it has withdrawn its request
for 2,621 rare ideographs (“gaiji” characters)
(Japan [National Body], “Follow-up on N3530
(Compatibility Ideographs for Government
Use)”, 2009), instead opting to register
them in the Ideographic Variation Database,
a Unicode Consortium-hosted registry of
variation sequences that contain unified
ideographs (Unicode Consortium, "Ideographic
Variation Databse", 2009). The use of variation
selectors is a different approach than that
advocated in the TEI P5 for “gaiji” characters
(TEI P5 Guidelines: "5. Representation of
Non-standard Characters and Glyphs"), but is
one that should be mentioned in future
as an alternative.
In order to keep
apprised of developments within the standards
groups, a liaison between TEI and the Unicode
Consortium (and/or ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2) would
be advisable, as the activities of Unicode (/ISO)
can influence TEI recommendations.
In sum, the process of character encoding is
one that ultimately involves people making
decisions. Being aware of the interests and
backgrounds of each standard group and their
members can help explain what appears to
be a spotty set of characters in Unicode.
Keeping up-to-date on developments within the
committees can also provide insight into why

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

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Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
  • Topics: None