Please download a font to view these pages properly.
 OpenType and Native Languages
What OpenType?

OpenType is a new font technology which improves dramatically on earlier TrueType (.ttf) and Type1 (.pfb) fonts. OpenType fonts come in two ‘flavours’: some font filenames end in .otf and others end in .ttf. For speakers of Native languages OpenType is at its most powerful for rendering diacritic marks properly. All of the fonts from Languagegeek are OpenType, as are many of the current ‘system fonts’ which come pre-loaded on your computer. However, not all take advantage of accurate accent placement, so it is worth testing different fonts to see which represent your language properly.

OpenType fonts can automatically combine several base glyphs into a single visual letter that for the user, is treated like any other single character. For example, in Hindi, the letter “prai” Hindi Praiis one letter which is made up of four compnant parts: pa + viram (no vowel) + r + joining ai. This is extremely powerful because only a small fraction of the total Hindi characters are necessarily encoded, and every combination imaginable can be produced. This system was not used for Korean or Chinese, where different forms or positions of the same character(s) have all been given individual Unicode numbers. Thus Hindi requires only 112 encoded characters, whereas Korean needs 11171: Korean would use fewer than 100 encoded characters when each symbol is built up of its component parts.

OpenType also can differentiate how one language treats a character as opposed to another. One example is the Cyrillic letter т, which looks quite different in italics in Russian and Serbian. With older font technology, one would need a “Russian” font and a “Serbian” font, so that when the text is italicised, the correct form will appear. OpenType takes care of this by including language-specific forms, so that if you are using a Russian keyboard, the Russian forms will be displayed. Support for language-specific glyphs is not yet common in operating systems.

How does OpenType help is writing Native languages?

As is demonstrated in the Unicode issues section, many languages have special diacritics (accents) which have not been given distinct Unicode numbers. Some examples include Navajo Ą́ (Nasal A-high tone) and Seneca ë́ (ë with stress). Notice that in the first example, the acute accent (´) may not be atop the A as it should be, but instead might be too low or off to the right. In the second example, the acute accent may interfere with the dieresis (¨).

What has happened here is that the letters Ą́ and ë́ are actually a combination of three Unicode glyphs, letter + accent + accent. The acute accent was designed to float over whatever character precedes it, but it cannot judge how high up or low it should be. OpenType fonts can control where each diacritic (accent) ought to be positioned for each letter. Thus cleaning up the mess of poorly placed accents.

Like the example of Serbian and Russian above, Syllabics languages have different styles of the same characters. Cree, Dene, and Blackfoot all share a symbol that looks like “b”, but for each, the look could be (for historical reasons) quite different Kakaka.In an OpenType font, designers have the option of adding historical and decorative forms, so that the typist can select a certain glyph in certain circumstances..

How can my computer use OpenType fonts?

If you’re using Windows 98, and you want to type in Syllabics in MS Word or WordPerfect, you’re probably out of luck. Older versions of Windows to my knowledge do not fully support OpenType for Syllabics or Roman orthographies.

Since the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows has supported some OpenType features, as has Mac OSX 10.4 and Adobe CS2. Microsoft Vista and Mac OSX 10.5 have much improved OpenType support for Native languages, and can with the right font, can beautifully represent the languages in print. Neither operating system takes advantage of the full power of OpenType, and it is hoped that future releases expand support to its fullest.

If OpenType doesn’t work on my system, why do I need to know any of this?

If you don’t have OpenType support on your computer, that is using Windows 98 or some older software, you have two choices: either accept poor-looking type, or use the Private Use Area (PUA) letters. In the Aboriginal Serif and Sans fonts, I have placed all of the accented letters in the PUA. The PUA is a range in Unicode which allows individuals to give personalised encodings to glyphs not already included in Unicode. I have put all of the variant syllabics in this area, along with hundreds of Roman accented letters.

If your computer is relatively up-to-date, there is no need to use the PUA, except for a few cases (like the capital form of ƛ). Unicode covers pretty much every letter used on Earth, and OpenType will make those characters look great.


Previous Page

Last Update: November 12, 2008