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Learn About HTML and Unicode



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The relationship between Unicode and HTML tends to be a difficult topic for many computer professionals, document authors, and web users alike. The accurate representation of text, in web pages, from different natural languages and writing systems is complicated by the details of character encoding, markup language syntax, and varying levels of support by web browsers.

Contents

HTML document characters

Web pages are typically HTML documents. HTML 4.0 (as well as XHTML and XML) documents are required to use the character repertoire and code points jointly defined by Unicode and ISO/IEC 10646: the Universal Character Set, as their primary document character set. That is, an HTML document is and must be composed of a sequence of Unicode characters.

When stored on a file system or transmitted over a network, these characters are encoded as a sequence of bit octets (bytes) according to a particular character encoding. This encoding may either be a Unicode Transformation Format, like UTF-8, that can directly encode any Unicode character, or a legacy encoding, like Windows-1252, that can't.

Numeric character references

For details, see Numeric character reference.

In order to work around the limitations of legacy encodings, HTML is designed such that it is possible to represent characters from the whole of Unicode inside an HTML document by using a numeric character reference: a sequence of characters that explicitly spell out the Unicode code point of the character being represented. A character reference takes the form &#N;, where N is either a decimal number for the Unicode code point, or a hexadecimal number, in which case it must be prefixed by x. The characters that comprise the numeric character reference are universally representable in every encoding approved for use on the Internet.

For example, a Unicode code point like 33865 (decimal), which corresponds to a particular Chinese character, has to be preceded by &# and followed by ;, like this: 葉, which produces this: �'� (if it doesn't look like a Chinese character, see the special characters note at bottom of article).

The support for hexadecimal in this context is more recent, so older browsers might have problems displaying characters referenced with hexadecimal numbers ��" but they will probably have a problem displaying Unicode characters above code point 255 anyway. It is still a common practice to convert the hexadecimal code point into a decimal value (for example ♠ instead of ♠).

Named character entities

For details, see character entity reference.

In HTML, there is a standard set of 252 named character entities for characters ��" some common, some obscure ��" that are either not found in certain character encodings or are markup sensitive in some contexts (for example angle brackets and quotation marks). Although any Unicode character can be referenced by its numeric code point, some HTML document authors prefer to use these named entities instead, where possible, as they are less cryptic and more widely supported by older browsers.

Character entities can be included in an HTML document via the use of entity references, which take the form &EntityName;, where EntityName is the name of the entity. For example, —, much like — or —, represents U+2014: the em dash character ��" like this ��" even if the character encoding used doesn't contain that character.

Character encoding determination

HTML

XHTML
Cascading Style Sheets
Character encodings
Layout engine comparison
Dynamic HTML
Font family
HTML editor
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HTML scripting
Unicode and HTML
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In order to correctly process HTML, a web browser must ascertain which Unicode characters are represented by the encoded form of an HTML document. In order to do this, the web browser must know what encoding was used. When a document is transmitted via a MIME message or a transport that uses MIME content types such as an HTTP response, the message may signal the encoding via a Content-Type header, such as Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1. Other external means of declaring encoding are permitted, but rarely used. The encoding may also be declared within the document itself, in the form of a META element, like <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1" />. When there is no encoding declaration, the default varies depending on the localisation of the browser. For a system set up mainly for Western European languages, it will generally be ISO-8859-1 or its close relation Windows-1252. For a browser from a location where multibyte character encodings are the norm, some form of autodetection is likely to be applied.

Because of the legacy of 8-bit text representations in programming languages and operating systems, and the desire to avoid burdening users with needing to understand the nuances of encoding, many text editors used by HTML authors are unable or unwilling to offer a choice of encodings when saving files to disk, and often do not even allow input of characters beyond a very limited range. Consequently, many HTML authors are unaware of encoding issues and may not have any idea what encoding their documents actually use. It is also a common misunderstanding that the encoding declaration effects a change in the actual encoding, whereas it is actually just a label that could be inaccurate.

Many HTML documents are served with inaccurate encoding declarations, or no declarations at all. In order to determine the encoding in such cases, many browsers allow the user to manually select one from a list. They may also employ an encoding autodetection algorithm that works in concert with the manual override. The manual override may apply to all documents, or only those for which the encoding cannot be ascertained by looking at declarations and/or byte patterns. The fact that the manual override is present and widely used hinders the adoption of accurate encoding declarations on the Web; therefore the problem is likely to persist. This has been addressed somewhat by XHTML, which, being XML, requires that encoding declarations be accurate and that no workarounds be employed when they're found to be inaccurate.

Web browser support

Many browsers are only capable of displaying a small subset of the full Unicode repertoire. Here is how your browser displays various Unicode code points:

Character HTML char ref Unicode name What your browser displays
U+0041 &#65; Latin capital letter A A
U+00DF &#223; Latin small letter Sharp S ß
U+00FE &#254; Latin small letter Thorn þ
U+0394 &#916; Greek capital letter Delta �"
U+0419 &#1049; Cyrillic capital letter Short I Й
U+05E7 &#1511; Hebrew letter Qof ק
U+0645 &#1605; Arabic letter Meem م
U+0E57 &#3671; Thai digit 7
U+1250 &#4688; Ethiopic syllable Qha
U+3042 &#12354; Hiragana letter small A (Japanese)
U+53F6 &#21494; CJK Unified Ideograph-53F6 (Simplified Chinese "Leaf")
U+8449 &#33865; CJK Unified Ideograph-8449 (Traditional Chinese "Leaf") �'�
U+B0FB &#45307; Hangul syllable Nyaelh (Korean "Nieun Yae Rieulhieuh")
U+10346 &#66374; Gothic letter Faihu 𐍆
To display all of the characters above, you may need to install one or more large multilingual fonts, like Code2000 (and Code2001 for some extinct languages, for example Gothic).

Some web browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Safari, are able to display multilingual web pages by intelligently choosing a font to display each individual character on the page. They will correctly display any mix of Unicode blocks, as long as appropriate fonts are present in the operating system.

Internet Explorer is capable of displaying the full range of Unicode characters, but can't automatically make the necessary font choice. Web page authors must guess which appropriate fonts might be present on users' systems, and manually specify them for each block of text with a different language or Unicode range. A user may have another font installed which would display some characters, but if the web page author hasn't specified it, then Explorer will fail to display them, and show placeholder squares instead.

Older browsers, such as Netscape Navigator 4.77, can only display text supported by the current font associated with the character encoding of the page, and may misinterpret numeric character references as being references to code values within the current character encoding, rather than references to Unicode code points. When you are using such a browser, it is unlikely that your computer has all of those fonts, or that the browser can use all available fonts on the same page. As a result, the browser will not display the text in the examples above correctly, though it may display a subset of them. Because they are encoded according to the standard, though, they will display correctly on any system that is compliant and does have the characters available. Further, those characters given names for use in named entity references are likely to be more commonly available than others.

For displaying characters outside the Basic Multilingual Plane, like the Gothic letter faihu in the table above, some systems (like Windows 2000) need manual adjustments of their settings.

See also

External links

Technical note: Due to technical limitations, some web browsers may not display some special characters in this article. Such characters may be rendered as boxes, question marks, or other nonsense symbols, depending on your browser, operating system, and installed fonts. Even if you have ensured that your browser is interpreting the article as UTF-8 encoded and you have installed a font that supports a wide range of Unicode, such as Code2000, Arial Unicode MS, Lucida Sans Unicode or one of the free software Unicode fonts, you may still need to use a different browser, as browser capabilities in this regard tend to vary.

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