Font-related problem for linguists

Don Killian donald.killian at HELSINKI.FI
Fri Mar 2 08:57:08 UTC 2012

While it's not precisely an oversight, it is however a possible 
solution, and in fact the most plausible one.  Despite Jan's comment 
about picking this symbol as an IPA character being wise, I don't 
foresee any changes to the IPA in this respect any time soon. The IPA 
was designed more than a hundred years ago, when this wasn't an issue.

Alternate glyph choice is what I am currently doing with Charis SIL; 
OpenOffice does support this, as does LaTeX via the Graphite renderer. 
And in fact the reason I put this on SIL's shoulders rather than Unicode 
in the beginning is that their fonts actually DO support all the 
characters you need, they just never come like this by default.  I was 
simply trying to encourage them to distribute a font which explicitly 
mentions being able to handle italicized IPA by default.

And in case you can't select font glyphs (such as in most versions of 
Word or other Uniscribe-based applications), it's really not that 
difficult to use the typetuner to make your own font with italicized a 
and æ.  Nonetheless, I still feel that having an officially supported 
and distributed font is important.

Whether it's by means of introducing a Unicode position for a and æ, or 
more widely available (and understandable!) support for alternate glyph 
choices, either are OK, so long as linguists who work with languages 
with these phonemic distinctions are not put at a disadvantage simply 
due to typographic conventions.

Incidentally, the Unicode consortium has now been contacted about the 
matter (apparently again, if SIL had already had a pending request), and 
if I hear back from them I will let you all know what I find out. Until 
something changes either on SIL's side or on Unicode's side, I believe a 
typetuned Charis SIL is our current best option, and I can just hope 
that journals won't be too picky about having your own customized font.



On 03/02/2012 10:15 AM, Rik wrote:
> 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...
> Best,
> Rik
> 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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