Font-related problem for linguists

Rik rdbusser at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 2 08:15:37 UTC 2012

I agree with Jan that this is not an oversight of the Unicode 
consortium. In fact, modern Unicode-compliant font formats, like 
Opentype, allow alternate glyphs to be defined for individual Unicode 
code points. In other words, you can define a number of variants of each 
letter. This feature was included to be able to use ligatures, 
context-dependent flourishes on capital letters, and similar 
typographical tricks that are needed to produce a perfect text. This 
should make it a piece of cake to design an italics font where you can 
choose between the typographic variants <a> and <ɑ> for the character a.

The problem? There are currently almost no word processors that actually 
allow you to manually select these alternate glyphs, even if they are 
included in your font. The internet told me something like this is 
supported in Word 2010, but I didn't try it out and it probably involves 
going into obscure menus.

You can use alternate glyphs in advanced desktop publishing tools such 
as Adobe Indesign (see and scroll 
to 'Advanced typography' for an example), but I wouldn't want to use one 
of those things to write an article...


On 02/03/2012 07:40, Jan Menge wrote:
> 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.
> Best,
> Jan

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