Font-related problem for linguists

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Thu Mar 1 19:36:27 UTC 2012

I think it IS a Unicode problem.

What happened was that the grapheme A (with its various realizations) 
was split up into two different graphemes by IPA. But in Unicode, there 
are only two different characters for "ordinary a" and "script a".

What we evidently need is three different Unicode characters: ordinary 
a, IPA script a, and IPA open a. Font designers need to add an italics 
form of IPA open a, and languages where script a is used distinctively 
should not use ordinary a.

See also Wikipedia, as so often very informative:


Am 3/1/12 6:47 PM, schrieb Jan Menge:
> Dear all, dear Peter,
>> But this is indeed not a SIL problem, it is a more general Unicode
> problem.
> Although I perfectly agree that this is not an SIL problem, I'd like to
> point out that it's not a Unicode problem either. Unicode is supposed to
> encode characters independently from a specific font or typeface, and
> this is exactly what it does here.
> /a/ being rendered as a slanted /ɑ/ in most fonts when italicized is an
> (in our case rather unfortunate) outcome of our Western typesetting
> tradition and font design history, but it shouldn't concern Unicode by
> its very definition.
> So considering that /ɑ/ will be confused with the traditional italic
> rendering of /a/ when both are in "true" italics, it would rather be
> worth discussing if (us linguists) picking this symbol as an IPA
> character was such a wise choice in the first place.
> We're coliding with our own font design tradition here, not with the
> concept of Unicode.
> Best wishes,
> Jan
> Am 01.03.2012 16:47, schrieb Peter Arkadiev:
>> Dear all,
>> to add to this, Unicode fonts create problems with italicizing "æ" to "œ", which is annoying, too, especially for those who occasionally use examples from languages as exotic as Skandinavian.
>> But this is indeed not a SIL problem, it is a more general Unicode problem.
>> Best wishes,
>> Peter
>> 01.03.2012, 15:03, "Don Killian"<donald.killian at HELSINKI.FI>:
>>> Hi all,
>>> This is perhaps a silly question, but I was wondering if anyone would be
>>> willing to help with a problem I've been having.
>>> As far as I'm aware, it's common practice to have single words in
>>> italics when they're inside text and from another language.  For
>>> languages with insufficient or non-existent orthographies, this is then
>>> done in IPA.
>>> Charis SIL is the only font I personally know of with full support for
>>> italicized IPA.  Some other fonts can handle most of IPA, e.g. Deja Vu
>>> Sans and Arial Unicode, but some of the combine characters can cause
>>> problems.
>>> However, Charis SIL has a rather annoying feature: when you italicize a
>>> it becomes ɑ, and in many ATR languages of Africa, the distinction
>>> between a and ɑ does indeed exist.  To turn this off, you're forced to
>>> use a user-selected variant of slant-italics, which not all programs
>>> support, or make your own font, which can cause other problems such as
>>> with some typesetters or journals, who aren't willing to do that.
>>> When I emailed SIL, they weren't willing to change the basic function of
>>> the font because they said there hasn't been a demand for it.
>>> But right now, this means that linguists are left without a single
>>> option for a font supporting both IPA and italics.
>>> If anyone has any alternatives they've used, I'm open to listening, but
>>> I can't imagine having both italics and IPA in an article or book is
>>> very rare, and I've seen numerous books which have evidently had
>>> problems with this.
>>> And, if anyone else would like to email SIL, their email address is:
>>> nrsi_intl at  Perhaps more linguists requesting this feature could
>>> encourage SIL enough to create a font with support for italicized IPA.
>>> Best,
>>> Don
>>> --
>>> Don Killian
>>> Researcher in African Linguistics
>>> Department of Modern Languages
>>> PL 24 (Unioninkatu 40)
>>> FI-00014 University of Helsinki
>>> +358 (0)44 5016437
>> --
>> Peter Arkadiev, PhD
>> Institute of Slavic Studies
>> Russian Academy of Sciences
>> Leninsky prospekt 32-A 119334 Moscow
>> peterarkadiev at

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