Font-related problem for linguists

Alexander Coupe ARCoupe at NTU.EDU.SG
Fri Mar 2 06:23:21 UTC 2012

This is only a problem if you use a font with an italic version. If you use a font like Doulos SIL that doesn't have one, then it won't trigger a change from LATIN SMALL LETTER A
(U+0061) to LATIN SMALL LETTER ALPHA (U+0251) when it's italicized - it will just slant as desired to maintain the distinction between mention and use.


-----Original Message-----
From: Discussion List for ALT [mailto] On Behalf Of Jan Menge
Sent: Friday, 2 March, 2012 7:41 AM
Subject: Re: Font-related problem for linguists

I think we're talking about two different things here, a dilemma on the one hand and a possible solution to it on the other.
I was merely saying that the fact that "ordinary a" is mostly rendered like "script a" (or "æ" as "œ" for that matter) in italic typefaces is by definition not a problem of the Unicode framework. It is not Unicode that causes this dilemma.

Nevertheless, Unicode could be one possible solution in that, as you propose, it could implement a third "IPA open a" which then should also be used by distinguishing languages as their 'ordinary a' (avoiding default "Latin A proper" altogether).
It remains debatable, though, if "IPA a" (i.e. the symbol for a low back vowel as such) is really an 'entity' in the Unicode sense distinct from a default ordinary /a/. If we follow that route, what about the bilabial plosives or alveolar fricatives, etc.? Unicode's understanding of the IPA is one of a Latin-based alphabet with a supplemented character set, not as an entirely different script. Thus, encoding characters /a/ and /ɑ/ is all Unicode needs to do.

In fact, the Wikipedia article you gave suggests a different solution at least for African alphabets: "⟨Ɑ ɑ⟩ [...] should look like the lowercase Greek alpha to better differentiate it from the letter a in script form.", i.e. a solution on a font level, not by encoding.


Am 01.03.2012 20:36, schrieb Martin Haspelmath:
> 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:
> Martin
> 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
>>> mp;id=279

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