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Font Primer

Page history last edited by John Jordan 9 years, 10 months ago

Font primer


Background information

There are three font technologies you will encounter: Type 1, TrueType and OpenType. Type 1 was the first font format, created by Adobe a couple decades ago. Adobe still holds the rights to the Type 1 font specification, but the standard is now available for all to use without royalties to Adobe. At first, however, Adobe wouldn't let anyone else make Type 1 fonts, and there were no competing technologies. Needless to say, Type 1 fonts, being the only fonts available, and being available only from Adobe, cost hundreds of dollars per font. To counter this, Apple and Microsoft teamed up to create the TrueType font standard, and right from the beginning they made it open so anyone could use it.


Thus began an era when Adobe sold their fonts in Type 1 format and everyone else sold their fonts in TrueType format. However, to counter the new TrueType standard Adobe opened up the Type 1 standard and anyone can now use it. However, Windows and Mac computers could use TrueType natively, but to use Type 1 required a special program called Adobe Type Manager. Naturally, Adobe charged extra for Adobe Type Manager. The sad thing about all this is that font vendors other than Adobe (Bitstream, Linotype, etc.) needed to sell their fonts in both TrueType and Type 1 formats. Furthermore, MacOS Classic (pre 10.0) managed fonts differently because of the way the Macintosh file system worked. So vendors had to support four different formats - Type 1 and and TrueType, and Mac and Windows versions of each.


Eventually Adobe and Microsoft teamed up to create a brand new font format called OpenType. OpenType isn't really a font format - it would be more accurate to call it a wrapper around a Type 1 or TrueType font. But the cool thing about OpenType is that it is also an open standard that anyone can use. And because of that Microsoft and Apple have both enabled it in their operating systems, and so has Linux. Font vendors can now sell their fonts in just OpenType format and anyone can use it on any computer.


The long and the short of all this is that today a user of a computer running Windows 2000 or later, MacOS 10 or later, or just about any version of Linux, can install and use any of the three kinds of fonts without needing anything special. Support for all three font types is built into all three operating systems.



A font can be defined as "A design for a set of characters." A font is the combination of typeface and other qualities, such as size, pitch, and spacing. For example, Times Roman is a typeface that defines the shape of each character. Within Times Roman, however, there are many fonts to choose from - different sizes, italic, bold, and so on. The term font is usually used (incorrectly) as a synonym for typeface. More about fonts and typefaces in a bit.



A character set can be defined as "The entire complement of alphanumeric and other symbols contained in a given font." Another way to look at it is that the typeface/font you choose determines what specific characters look like, e.g., the design, the version (Regular, Bold, etc), but the character set you choose determines what characters are available to you. While most character sets have the letters and numbers we are used to, some include those funny IPA characters we want to make, and some do not - and some character sets only include a subset of the whole IPA character set, so you'll want to be careful about what character set you use!


Here is a site with an excellent list of some common character sets, along with their limitations and uses. The three that most people need to be aware of are ISO 8859-x, used on most versions of Windows, and UTF-8 (single-byte Unicode) and UTF-16 (two-byte Unicode). What you will need in order to be able to view and type all IPA characters is either UTF-8 or UTF-16, although some people can skimp by on ISO 8859-x if they don't need more than the most common IPA characters. UTF-8 is adequate for every possible IPA character. UTF-16 is required in order to use a keyboard to type in Asian languages such as Chinese or Japanese. Linux/Unix are set globally to UTF-8 by default and Macs are set globally to UTF-16 by default. Windows is usually set to 8859-x by default. In "8859-x" the "x" refers to a country or language code. For example, if your computer and Windows are set to "United States - English" your character set will be 8859-1.


What Unicode is all about

Unicode is a system that seeks to name all glyphs (characters, numerals, punctuation, etc) that humans use. Imagine how many thousands of human languages there are and how many hundreds of characters each language needs for its orthography ... and then there's math.  Unicode seeks to make one system that has a discrete name (alpha-numeric value) for every character any human could ever want to use.  Before Unicode many different naming systems (encodings) were used independent of one another. These systems functioned well within the language or region they were intended for, but as the internet developed and globalization brought as divergent languages as Urdu and Basque into digital contact with one another, some system was needed to unify all the writing systems. Unicode is what enables you to browser the web and see Japanese Kanji characters on the same page as Russian, and your computer doesn't miss a beat.


Unicode itself is designed with characters divided into blocks to make it easy to find characters. At least, that was the plan. In reality it can be a pain because the blocks are not very alphabetical. Here are the first few blocks:


LATIN-1 through LATIN-10: Pretty much the characters you see on the keyboard in countries that speak Indo-European languages. Note that Latin includes characters with diacritics that are used in French, German, etc., even though those are not standard on the keyboard in all places where Indo-European langages are spoken.

LATIN-1 SUPPLEMENT - Includes characters for additional Indo-European languages beyond Germanic and Romance languages.

LATIN EXTENDED - A and B - Even more characters for Indo-European languages, including some that we think of as IPA.

IPA EXTENSIONS - These are your basic IPA set, but includes only those IPA characters beyond the characters already included in the above character sets.

SPACING MODIFIER LETTERS - A lot of characters that we use occasionally in IPA. Characters in this set are "spacing characters," that is, they occupy space on the line the same as regular characters (see COMBINING DIACRITICAL MARKS below for the contrast).

COMBINING DIACRITICAL MARKS - These are diacriticals that do not occupy a space on the line. Here is where you will find characters like the diacritics for voiceless, dental, syllabic, and so on. When you type one of these characters it places the diacritic on top of the preceding character. This set is one that is essential for linguists.


There are lots of other Unicode blocks (e.g., specific blocks for specific languages), but the above are what linguists writing in most European languages will need.


A little more about fonts and typefaces

Technically, a typeface is a set of fonts that match in appearance, where each font is a different version. For example, the vast majority of fonts today come with Regular (Roman), Italic, Bold, and Bold-Italic. Thus "Times - Roman" is one font of the Times typeface. Serious professional typefaces (translation: Expensive commercial typefaces) come with more than just the four standard versions, such as Semi-Bold, Heavy, Black, and so on. Unless you're typesetting a book for publication you don't need these capabilities. For ordinary linguistics work any font that comes with the four basic versions will do.


There are various classifications for fonts. Most typefaces that you have been using are serif faces. A serif typeface has little tails and curlicues at the ends of the characters (the serifs). In contrast, a sans-serif face is very plain. Times is an example of a serif typeface. Arial is an example of a sans-serif typeface. Traditionally serif fonts are better for body text, and sans-serif for headers and titles. Studies have demonstrated that humans can read serif faces faster. There is something about the little serifs that make it easier for the eyes to distinguish letters. And having said that, another general rule of good typesetting is NEVER USE ALL CAPS (all uppercase). The irregular up and down appearance of lowercase makes it easier for the eye to distinguish letters. Even titles and headers are better in upper- and lowercase. If you do type something in all caps, keep it short and use it sparingly. OK, you probably don't care about appearance (most people don't), but some of us do. Those who do may include some of your professors. Paying attention to the appearance of your documents says "I care about the quality of my work." The message is not lost on professors. But this is not a site for typesetting and design so we'll shut up about that now.


Computer typefaces are coded with flags inside the font. One of these flags is for whether it is Regular, Italic, Bold, or Bold-Italic. When you install a font your operating system reads the font file and automatically sets it up so all that will appear in your word processor is the name of the typeface. Then, when you italicize or bold a selection of text the word processor automatically knows that it needs to switch to the Italic, Bold or Bold-Italic font for that selection of text. Pretty clever, eh? Having said that, there are ways that some software messes up the system. What if you have a font that comes in only Regular and Italic - no Bold or Bold-Italic (e.g., Gentium from Summer Institute of Linguistics)? Some word processors (e.g., Word, WordPerfect) will fake Bold versions. They will appear fine on-screen, but when you print the document they may come out without the Bold. We think the Gentium font is very attractive, but prefer to recommend other typefaces that come in all four standard flavors. In our experience users discover that the Bold and Bold-Italic are not appearing on the printout at midnight when the paper is due at 8:00 the next morning. We should also mention that recent versions of LibreOffice/OpenOffice.org fake bold and bold-italic by default, but this feature can be turned off. We recommend turning it off so that what you see on the screen is what will print.


Another flag that fonts have is for the class the font is. Fonts are classed as "body text," "symbol," "script" and several other categories. This is actually not a very useful flag for most people under most situations. In fact, it creates a problem for users of older versions of Microsoft Office. Office has always had an "Insert Symbol" capability, but until Office 2003 it would allow you to choose only characters from fonts that are classed as symbol fonts. There are other ways to insert characters from any font into a Microsoft Office document, but some think it's kind of lame that the only thing that you could insert from "Insert Symbol" is a character from symbol fonts like Wingdings, Dingbats, and so on. (If you need more detail about inserting IPA characters into Microsoft Office documents, go to our Microsoft Office page.)


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