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Flavors of Unicode

Let's take a minute to go back over the character-encoding terms from Chapter 2:

  • An abstract character repertoire is a collection of characters.

  • A coded character set maps the characters in an abstract character repertoire to abstract numeric values or positions in a table. These abstract numeric values are called code points. (For a while, the Unicode 2.0 standard referred to code points as "Unicode scalar values.")

  • A character encoding form maps code points to series of fixed-length bit patterns known as code units. (For a while, the Unicode 2.0 standard referred to code units as "code points.")

  • A character encoding scheme, also called a serialization format, maps code units to bytes in a sequential order. (This may involve specifying a serialization order for code units that are more than one byte long, specifying a method of mapping code units from more than one encoding form into bytes, or both.)

  • A transfer encoding syntax is an additional transformation that may be performed on a serialized sequence of bytes to optimize it for some situation (transforming a sequence of 8-bit byte values for transmission through a system that handles only 7-bit values, for example).

For most Western encoding standards, the transforms in the middle (i.e., from code points to code units and from code units to bytes) are so straightforward that they're never thought of as distinct steps. The standards in the ISO 8859 family, for example, define coded character sets. Because the code point values are a byte long already, the character encoding forms and character encoding schemes used with these coded character sets are basically null transforms: You use the normal binary representation of the code point values as code units, and you don't have to do anything to convert the code units to bytes. (ISO 2022 does define a character encoding scheme that lets you mix characters from different coded character sets in a single serialized data stream.)

The East Asian character standards make these transforms more explicit. JIS X 0208 and JIS X 0212 define coded character sets only; they just map each character to row and column numbers in a table. You then have a choice of character encoding schemes for converting the row and column numbers into serialized bytes: Shift-JIS, EUC-JP, and ISO 2022-JP are all examples of character encoding schemes used with the JIS coded character sets.

The Unicode standard makes each layer in this hierarchy explicit. It comprises the following:

  1. An abstract character repertoire that includes characters for an extremely wide variety of writing systems.

  2. A single coded character set that maps each character in the abstract repertoire to a 21-bit value. (The 21-bit value can also be thought of as a coordinate in a three-dimensional space: a 5-bit plane number, an 8-bit row number, and an 8-bit cell number.)

  3. Three character encoding forms known as Unicode Transformation Formats (UTF):

    • UTF-32, which represents each 21-bit code point value as a single 32-bit code unit. UTF-32 is optimized for systems where 32-bit values are easier or faster to process and space isn't at a premium.

    • UTF-16, which represents each 21-bit code point value as a sequence of one or two 16-bit code units. The vast majority of characters are represented with single 16-bit code units, making it a good general-use compromise between UTF-32 and UTF-8. UTF-16, the oldest Unicode encoding form, is the form specified by the Java and JavaScript programming languages and the XML Document Object Model APIs.

    • UTF-8, which represents each 21-bit code point value as a sequence of one to four 8-bit code units. The ASCII characters have exactly the same representation in UTF-8 as they do in ASCII, and UTF-8 is optimized for byte-oriented systems or systems where backward compatibility with ASCII is important. For European languages, UTF-8 is also more compact than UTF-16; for Asian languages, UTF-16 is more compact than UTF-8. UTF-8 is the default encoding form for a wide variety of Internet standards.

  4. Seven character encoding schemes. UTF-8 is a character encoding scheme unto itself because it uses 8-bit code units. UTF-16 and UTF-32 each have three associated encoding schemes:

    • A "big-endian" version that serializes each code unit most-significant-byte first.

    • A "little-endian" version that serializes each code unit least-significant-byte first.

    • A self-describing version that uses an extra sentinel value at the beginning of the stream, called the "byte order mark," to specify whether the code units are in big-endian or little-endian order.

In addition, some allied specifications aren't officially part of the Unicode standard:

  • UTF-EBCDIC is a version of UTF-8 designed for use on EBCDIC-based systems that maps Unicode code points to series of from one to five 8-bit code units.

  • CESU-8 is a modified version of UTF-8 designed for backward compatibility with some older Unicode implementations.

  • UTF-7 is a mostly obsolete character encoding scheme for use with 7-bit Internet standards that maps UTF-16 code units to sequences of 7-bit values.

  • Standard Compression Scheme for Unicode (SCSU) is a character encoding scheme that maps a sequence of UTF-16 code units to a compressed sequence of bytes, providing a serialized Unicode representation that is generally as compact for a given language as that language's legacy encoding standards and that optimizes Unicode text for further compression with byte-oriented compression schemes such as LZW.

  • Byte-Order Preserving Compression for Unicode (BOCU) is another compression format for Unicode.

We'll delve into the details of these encoding forms and schemes in Chapter 6.

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