Introduction to
Fonts and Keyboards in your Language

I regularly receive e-mails from people who are having difficulties getting their computer to display their language properly or with typing their language. In some cases, the problem lies in some part of the installation process, while in others the difficulty stems from a misunderstanding of what the terms “font” and “keyboard layout” mean in modern computing. Because the whole process is not clear or obvious, I am providing step-by-step instructions for people who wish to start working in Native languages on their computer. By the way, I receive as many questions from computer neophytes as I do from IT experts.

To begin, please look at the vocabulary definitions in the right-hand column of this page. These definitions are not necessarily the traditional meanings, but do explain how these terms are used in computing. If something is still causing difficulty, please let me know and I’ll add a relevant section to this page.

The Basics

Here I will answer some of the most common questions and discuss some easy-to-make mistakes.

  1. Where do I get the <my language> font? The easy answer is there is no special font for your language. Chances are, if you have a relatively up-to-date computer, you can already see letters like ƛ, ə, ᑾ, Ꮙ. Please have a look at the information boxes in the right column to see what I mean. I think when people ask this question, what they are looking for is really question 2 below.
  2. Is there a way to work in my language on my computer? Yes. You will need at least two pieces of software to work in your language: a) a Unicode font which contains the characters needed for your language, b) a keyboard layout . Both Unicode fonts and keyboard layouts for most North American Native languages are available from Languagegeek.
  3. I don’t see my language listed on your font download page. Before Unicode was common on computers, each language needed its own set of fonts. Now, there is no need to have a special font for each language. Although Languagegeek has several fonts designed for Canadian syllabics and Cherokee syllabics, the Aboriginal series of font families covers both these writing systems along with all those languages using the Latin scipt (often called Roman orthography). If you download one of the Aboriginal fonts, it will most likely work for your language.
  4. I don’t see my keyboard layout listed on your site. If you can’t find your language in the list of Languagegeek keyboard layouts, try looking under your language’s name in the Native language, in English, or in French. If it’s still not there, please contact me and I’ll create a layout for you.
  5. I want to type my language, just tell me what to do! The steps below will walk you through the installation processes.

What You Need

To type in your language, you will need a Unicode Font and a Keyboard Layout.

In a few cases, no special font or keyboard layout is necessary because the language’s orthography only uses what appears on a standard English keyboard. Somewhat more often, you may not need to download any new fonts because your spelling system does not require any characters outside the Western European set which is already present on 99% of the fonts already on your computer. However, you will still need a keyboard layout to efficiently access some accented characters.

Keyboard Layouts

Very few, if any, Native languages are supported by the main operating systems, Mac OS X and Windows. You’ll likely have to download and install a keyboard layout.


Once you have one of the Unicode fonts installed, you should be able to read and type in the Native language. Please keep in mind that you will have to specify which font you want to use in your software application. For example, if you are working in a word processor, you will have to select a font (like the languagegeek font families) which has your language’s characters included. If you do not select such a font to type in, you may end up looking at the dreaded empty box. In other application types, like e-mail or web-design, it can be a bit more difficult to select fonts. If you run into trouble here, please let me know, and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Unicode System Fonts

Useful system fonts are: Times New Roman, Helvetica, Arial, Lucida Grande. The excellent DejaVu series of font-families are available free on-line (try Googling “DejaVu Font”).The most recent versions of Mac OS X and Windows Vista already have system fonts which conform to Unicode standards and have a very wide variety of characters used in Native languages. However, their coverage is not necessarily complete or up-to-date, and each has several bugs which can result in incorrectly displayed letters. To be sure, I can only guarantee that my fonts will work correctly, and if they don’t, I can fix them quickly and have a new version on Languagegeek for free download. For this reason, I suggest downloading and installing a Languagegeek font first, and then you can experiment with your computer’s system fonts to see if they are acceptable. Languagegeek’s FAQ has font installation instructions.

These instructions are for Windows operating systems only. I have not received the same sorts of questions from Mac users; consequently I assume that the installation procedures are working smoothly for them.


A font is a set of characters in a certain style or weight. A group of related fonts is ‘font family’. For example, ‘Aboriginal Sans’ is a font family, while ‘Aboriginal Sans Italic’ is a font within that font family.


Unicode is a catalogue of all the characters (letters, symbols, diacritics, numbers, etc.) used by most of the languages of the world. The catalogue contains tens of thousands of characters and is used by all modern computer operating systems.

Unicode Font

A font which conforms to the Unicode standard is called, on this web-site at least, a Unicode font. All Unicode fonts follow the same mapping, so an ‘e with an acute accent’ appears as é in all fonts.

Pre-Unicode Font

In the years before Unicode, many Native languages had their own specific fonts, where unused characters were replaced with characters used in the language. For example, the yen-symbol ¥ could be remapped to ƛ. Documents using Pre-Unicode fonts required the reader to have exactly the same font installed on their computer as the typist had. Thankfully, this is no longer necessary, nor are fonts specially built for one language; the Unicode fonts on Languagegeek cover hundreds of different languages. Some font families are designed specifically for certain languages: like Oski Dakelh (available on this site). However, the Dakelh language can be viewed in other Unicode fonts as well.

Keyboard Layout

A keyboard layout (often abbreviated to just keyboard) is a piece of software which remaps the keys on your keyboard. For example, the semicolon key could be remapped to the diæresis accent (as in ö) or the slash could be remapped to the glottal stop ʔ. Keyboard layouts are not translators: you still have to be literate in the language to be able to type it.

If you are having problems viewing the language properly, please download and install one of the languagegeek fonts.
©2002-2009 Chris Harvey/Languagegeek
Last Modified: 16-Dec-2009