Representing diacritics in 7-bit ASCII

bpj at bpj at
Wed Dec 11 21:02:04 UTC 1996

At 14:22 11.12.1996 -0500, Alain LaBont/e'/ wrote:
>At 16:44 96-12-11 +0200, B.Philip.Jonsson [Seeker of Useless Knowledge] wrote:
>>Some time ago my attention was drawn to the severe difficulty of
>>representing the diacritics found in many orthographies as well as
>>scholarly and bibliographic transcription-schemes. Even users of 8-bit
>>systems must have access to special fonts to write and view such special
>>characters; these fonts are hard to obtain, and there have as yet emerged
>>no useful standards for the encoding of character-sets outside the
>>orthographies of European languages. The different 8-bit systems (e.g.
>>Macintosh and Windows) don't even agree wrt the encoding of diacriticized
>>letters found in "major" languages like Spanish, French and German.
>[Alain LaBonté] :
>English does not agree either on the encoding of ASCII versus EBCDIC. This
>consideration leads to sophisms (btw Latin 1 agrees with the encoding of
>characters as used in Spanish, German or French!!!) One needs external
>tagging of text data, even with ASCII. Furthermore fonts are not hard to
>find. Fonts exist and are used by users of the languages to which they
>apply. They also exist and are easy to find for scripts not in use in one's

Ever tried to get a font for Latinized Sanskrit, or Avestan, or Old
English? They do exist, but it is hard, and then there are no universally
agreed upon standards.

>[Mr. Jonsson] :
>>The solution then, must be to use linear strings of 7-bit ASCII-characters
>>to represent diacriticised letters.
>[Alain LaBonté] :
>If 7-bit means 7-bit octets (i.e. stripping 12% of the actual data out, and
>that is what is being actually done in many places, as all 7-bit character
>sets all use 8 bits nowadays in reality), this is not a solution, this is
>the *major* [80%] source of the problem that plagues communications when
>parochial English-speaking systems are involved. It is like saying that the
>solution to reading a "bad" handwriting would be that the postman erase one
>letter out of eight inside a sealed envelope to replace it by the postman's
>Reduction of a character set into a smaller one is an alternative that
>should be reserved to extreme cases, like morse code is reserved to cases
>when radio communications links are extremely poor, weak and difficult. None
>would however say that morse code is the universal solution to
>communications problems. It is but a worst-case alternative, even if I
>myself invented such a scheme, for worts cases indeed. That should not be
>encouraged though as a way of the future.
>Alain LaBonté

My scheme was meant as a solution to the following problem: You sit there
exchanging email of a scholarly linguistic content with other people. The
only characters/glyphs you all share between you, and which can be
error-proofly transmitted are these:


What, then, to do, if you are de-facto confined to this range of
characters, because of incompatibility between systems, or by a system that
in fact contains no other chars, if you want to convey/cite Latin script
text using various traditional diacritics? The way you write your own name
in your header shows that this is a real problem! I for one am tired of
MIME-garbled diacriticized letters.

My scheme was designed to give a representation of these traditional
diacritics readily recognizable to the bare human eye under the
circumstances described. It appears that I should have been more explicit
at this point.

Clearly all this animosity and misunderstanding results from our adressing
the problems at different technical levels. I am quite savvy wrt
writing-systems, glyph-forms and the history of writing and
transliteration, but when it comes to (the inner life of) computers I'm as
ignorant as anyones grandmother. I still think I may have something
worthwhile to contribute.

Maybe some of you technically savvy people could help me to get my
(foreign) English language right, so that we all understand what we are
talking about, before flaming me?

It is curious that one should be harshly ridiculed for trying to offer
simple, ad-hoc solutions to everyday problems.

Best regards, hoping that this is all a misunderstanding of either of us.

 _                     __  ___   __ ___ __
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|   | ) | | | |_)            |     \
B.Philip Jonsson <bpj at>

"Peace is not simply the absence of war.
It is not a passive state of being.
We must wage peace, as vigilantly as we wage war."
(XIV Dalai Lama)

"A coincidence, as we say in Middle-Earth"

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