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UTF-8: The Secret of Character Encoding

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HTML Purifier End-User Documentation

Character encoding and character sets are not that difficult to understand, but so many people blithely stumble through the worlds of programming without knowing what to actually do about it, or say "Ah, it's a job for those internationalization experts." No, it is not! This document will walk you through determining the encoding of your system and how you should handle this information. It will stay away from excessive discussion on the internals of character encoding.

This document is not designed to be read in its entirety: it will slowly introduce concepts that build on each other: you need not get to the bottom to have learned something new. However, I strongly recommend you read all the way to Why UTF-8?, because at least at that point you'd have made a conscious decision not to migrate, which can be a rewarding (but difficult) task.

Asides

Text in this formatting is an aside, interesting tidbits for the curious but not strictly necessary material to do the tutorial. If you read this text, you'll come out with a greater understanding of the underlying issues.

Table of Contents

  1. Finding the real encoding
  2. Finding the embedded encoding
  3. Fixing the encoding
    1. No embedded encoding
    2. Embedded encoding disagrees
    3. Changing the server encoding
      1. PHP header() function
      2. PHP ini directive
      3. Non-PHP
      4. .htaccess
      5. File extensions
    4. XML
    5. Inside the process
  4. Why UTF-8?
    1. Internationalization
    2. User-friendly
    3. Forms
      1. application/x-www-form-urlencoded
      2. multipart/form-data
    4. Well supported
    5. HTML Purifiers
  5. Migrate to UTF-8
    1. Configuring your database
      1. Legit method
      2. Binary
    2. Text editor
    3. Byte Order Mark (headers already sent!)
    4. Fonts
      1. Obscure scripts
      2. Occasional use
    5. Dealing with variable width in functions
  6. Further Reading

Finding the real encoding

In the beginning, there was ASCII, and things were simple. But they weren't good, for no one could write in Cyrillic or Thai. So there exploded a proliferation of character encodings to remedy the problem by extending the characters ASCII could express. This ridiculously simplified version of the history of character encodings shows us that there are now many character encodings floating around.

A character encoding tells the computer how to interpret raw zeroes and ones into real characters. It usually does this by pairing numbers with characters.

There are many different types of character encodings floating around, but the ones we deal most frequently with are ASCII, 8-bit encodings, and Unicode-based encodings.

The first step of our journey is to find out what the encoding of your website is. The most reliable way is to ask your browser:

Mozilla Firefox
Tools > Page Info: Encoding
Internet Explorer
View > Encoding: bulleted item is unofficial name

Internet Explorer won't give you the MIME (i.e. useful/real) name of the character encoding, so you'll have to look it up using their description. Some common ones:

IE's Description Mime Name
Windows
Arabic (Windows)Windows-1256
Baltic (Windows)Windows-1257
Central European (Windows)Windows-1250
Cyrillic (Windows)Windows-1251
Greek (Windows)Windows-1253
Hebrew (Windows)Windows-1255
Thai (Windows)TIS-620
Turkish (Windows)Windows-1254
Vietnamese (Windows)Windows-1258
Western European (Windows)Windows-1252
ISO
Arabic (ISO)ISO-8859-6
Baltic (ISO)ISO-8859-4
Central European (ISO)ISO-8859-2
Cyrillic (ISO)ISO-8859-5
Estonian (ISO)ISO-8859-13
Greek (ISO)ISO-8859-7
Hebrew (ISO-Logical)ISO-8859-8-l
Hebrew (ISO-Visual)ISO-8859-8
Latin 9 (ISO)ISO-8859-15
Turkish (ISO)ISO-8859-9
Western European (ISO)ISO-8859-1
Other
Chinese Simplified (GB18030)GB18030
Chinese Simplified (GB2312)GB2312
Chinese Simplified (HZ)HZ
Chinese Traditional (Big5)Big5
Japanese (Shift-JIS)Shift_JIS
Japanese (EUC)EUC-JP
KoreanEUC-KR
Unicode (UTF-8)UTF-8

Internet Explorer does not recognize some of the more obscure character encodings, and having to lookup the real names with a table is a pain, so I recommend using Mozilla Firefox to find out your character encoding.

Finding the embedded encoding

At this point, you may be asking, "Didn't we already find out our encoding?" Well, as it turns out, there are multiple places where a web developer can specify a character encoding, and one such place is in a META tag:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />

You'll find this in the HEAD section of an HTML document. The text to the right of charset= is the "claimed" encoding: the HTML claims to be this encoding, but whether or not this is actually the case depends on other factors. For now, take note if your META tag claims that either:

  1. The character encoding is the same as the one reported by the browser,
  2. The character encoding is different from the browser's, or
  3. There is no META tag at all! (horror, horror!)

Fixing the encoding

The advice given here is for pages being served as vanilla text/html. Different practices must be used for application/xml or application/xml+xhtml, see W3C's document on XHTML media types for more information.

If your META encoding and your real encoding match, savvy! You can skip this section. If they don't...

No embedded encoding

If this is the case, you'll want to add in the appropriate META tag to your website. It's as simple as copy-pasting the code snippet above and replacing UTF-8 with whatever is the mime name of your real encoding.

For all those skeptics out there, there is a very good reason why the character encoding should be explicitly stated. When the browser isn't told what the character encoding of a text is, it has to guess: and sometimes the guess is wrong. Hackers can manipulate this guess in order to slip XSS past filters and then fool the browser into executing it as active code. A great example of this is the Google UTF-7 exploit.

You might be able to get away with not specifying a character encoding with the META tag as long as your webserver sends the right Content-Type header, but why risk it? Besides, if the user downloads the HTML file, there is no longer any webserver to define the character encoding.

Embedded encoding disagrees

This is an extremely common mistake: another source is telling the browser what the character encoding is and is overriding the embedded encoding. This source usually is the Content-Type HTTP header that the webserver (i.e. Apache) sends. A usual Content-Type header sent with a page might look like this:

Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1

Notice how there is a charset parameter: this is the webserver's way of telling a browser what the character encoding is, much like the META tags we touched upon previously.

In fact, the META tag is designed as a substitute for the HTTP header for contexts where sending headers is impossible (such as locally stored files without a webserver). Thus the name http-equiv (HTTP equivalent).

There are two ways to go about fixing this: changing the META tag to match the HTTP header, or changing the HTTP header to match the META tag. How do we know which to do? It depends on the website's content: after all, headers and tags are only ways of describing the actual characters on the web page.

If your website:

...only uses ASCII characters,
Either way is fine, but I recommend switching both to UTF-8 (more on this later).
...uses special characters, and they display properly,
Change the embedded encoding to the server encoding.
...uses special characters, but users often complain that they come out garbled,
Change the server encoding to the embedded encoding.

Changing a META tag is easy: just swap out the old encoding for the new. Changing the server (HTTP header) encoding, however, is slightly more difficult.

Changing the server encoding

PHP header() function

The simplest way to handle this problem is to send the encoding yourself, via your programming language. Since you're using HTML Purifier, I'll assume PHP, although it's not too difficult to do similar things in other languages. The appropriate code is:

header('Content-Type:text/html; charset=UTF-8');

...replacing UTF-8 with whatever your embedded encoding is. This code must come before any output, so be careful about stray whitespace in your application (i.e., any whitespace before output excluding whitespace within <?php ?> tags).

PHP ini directive

PHP also has a neat little ini directive that can save you a header call: default_charset. Using this code:

ini_set('default_charset', 'UTF-8');

...will also do the trick. If PHP is running as an Apache module (and not as FastCGI, consult phpinfo() for details), you can even use htaccess to apply this property across many PHP files:

php_value default_charset "UTF-8"

As with all INI directives, this can also go in your php.ini file. Some hosting providers allow you to customize your own php.ini file, ask your support for details. Use:

default_charset = "utf-8"

Non-PHP

You may, for whatever reason, need to set the character encoding on non-PHP files, usually plain ol' HTML files. Doing this is more of a hit-or-miss process: depending on the software being used as a webserver and the configuration of that software, certain techniques may work, or may not work.

.htaccess

On Apache, you can use an .htaccess file to change the character encoding. I'll defer to W3C for the in-depth explanation, but it boils down to creating a file named .htaccess with the contents:

AddCharset UTF-8 .html

Where UTF-8 is replaced with the character encoding you want to use and .html is a file extension that this will be applied to. This character encoding will then be set for any file directly in or in the subdirectories of directory you place this file in.

If you're feeling particularly courageous, you can use:

AddDefaultCharset UTF-8

...which changes the character set Apache adds to any document that doesn't have any Content-Type parameters. This directive, which the default configuration file sets to iso-8859-1 for security reasons, is probably why your headers mismatch with the META tag. If you would prefer Apache not to be butting in on your character encodings, you can tell it not to send anything at all:

AddDefaultCharset Off

...making your internal charset declaration (usually the META tags) the sole source of character encoding information. In these cases, it is especially important to make sure you have valid META tags on your pages and all the text before them is ASCII.

These directives can also be placed in httpd.conf file for Apache, but in most shared hosting situations you won't be able to edit this file.

File extensions

If you're not allowed to use .htaccess files, you can often piggy-back off of Apache's default AddCharset declarations to get your files in the proper extension. Here are Apache's default character set declarations:

Charset File extension(s)
ISO-8859-1.iso8859-1 .latin1
ISO-8859-2.iso8859-2 .latin2 .cen
ISO-8859-3.iso8859-3 .latin3
ISO-8859-4.iso8859-4 .latin4
ISO-8859-5.iso8859-5 .latin5 .cyr .iso-ru
ISO-8859-6.iso8859-6 .latin6 .arb
ISO-8859-7.iso8859-7 .latin7 .grk
ISO-8859-8.iso8859-8 .latin8 .heb
ISO-8859-9.iso8859-9 .latin9 .trk
ISO-2022-JP.iso2022-jp .jis
ISO-2022-KR.iso2022-kr .kis
ISO-2022-CN.iso2022-cn .cis
Big5.Big5 .big5 .b5
WINDOWS-1251.cp-1251 .win-1251
CP866.cp866
KOI8-r.koi8-r .koi8-ru
KOI8-ru.koi8-uk .ua
ISO-10646-UCS-2.ucs2
ISO-10646-UCS-4.ucs4
UTF-8.utf8
GB2312.gb2312 .gb
utf-7.utf7
EUC-TW.euc-tw
EUC-JP.euc-jp
EUC-KR.euc-kr
shift_jis.sjis

So, for example, a file named page.utf8.html or page.html.utf8 will probably be sent with the UTF-8 charset attached, the difference being that if there is an AddCharset charset .html declaration, it will override the .utf8 extension in page.utf8.html (precedence moves from right to left). By default, Apache has no such declaration.

Microsoft IIS

If anyone can contribute information on how to configure Microsoft IIS to change character encodings, I'd be grateful.

XML

META tags are the most common source of embedded encodings, but they can also come from somewhere else: XML Declarations. They look like:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>

...and are most often found in XML documents (including XHTML).

For XHTML, this XML Declaration theoretically overrides the META tag. In reality, this happens only when the XHTML is actually served as legit XML and not HTML, which is almost always never due to Internet Explorer's lack of support for application/xhtml+xml (even though doing so is often argued to be good practice and is required by the XHTML 1.1 specification).

For XML, however, this XML Declaration is extremely important. Since most webservers are not configured to send charsets for .xml files, this is the only thing a parser has to go on. Furthermore, the default for XML files is UTF-8, which often butts heads with more common ISO-8859-1 encoding (you see this in garbled RSS feeds).

In short, if you use XHTML and have gone through the trouble of adding the XML Declaration, make sure it jives with your META tags (which should only be present if served in text/html) and HTTP headers.

Inside the process

This section is not required reading, but may answer some of your questions on what's going on in all this character encoding hocus pocus. If you're interested in moving on to the next phase, skip this section.

A logical question that follows all of our wheeling and dealing with multiple sources of character encodings is "Why are there so many options?" To answer this question, we have to turn back our definition of character encodings: they allow a program to interpret bytes into human-readable characters.

Thus, a chicken-egg problem: a character encoding is necessary to interpret the text of a document. A META tag is in the text of a document. The META tag gives the character encoding. How can we determine the contents of a META tag, inside the text, if we don't know it's character encoding? And how do we figure out the character encoding, if we don't know the contents of the META tag?

Fortunately for us, the characters we need to write the META are in ASCII, which is pretty much universal over every character encoding that is in common use today. So, all the web-browser has to do is parse all the way down until it gets to the Content-Type tag, extract the character encoding tag, then re-parse the document according to this new information.

Obviously this is complicated, so browsers prefer the simpler and more efficient solution: get the character encoding from a somewhere other than the document itself, i.e. the HTTP headers, much to the chagrin of HTML authors who can't set these headers.

Why UTF-8?

So, you've gone through all the trouble of ensuring that your server and embedded characters all line up properly and are present. Good job: at this point, you could quit and rest easy knowing that your pages are not vulnerable to character encoding style XSS attacks. However, just as having a character encoding is better than having no character encoding at all, having UTF-8 as your character encoding is better than having some other random character encoding, and the next step is to convert to UTF-8. But why?

Internationalization

Many software projects, at one point or another, suddenly realize that they should be supporting more than one language. Even regular usage in one language sometimes requires the occasional special character that, without surprise, is not available in your character set. Sometimes developers get around this by adding support for multiple encodings: when using Chinese, use Big5, when using Japanese, use Shift-JIS, when using Greek, etc. Other times, they use character references with great zeal.

UTF-8, however, obviates the need for any of these complicated measures. After getting the system to use UTF-8 and adjusting for sources that are outside the hand of the browser (more on this later), UTF-8 just works. You can use it for any language, even many languages at once, you don't have to worry about managing multiple encodings, you don't have to use those user-unfriendly entities.

User-friendly

Websites encoded in Latin-1 (ISO-8859-1) which occasionally need a special character outside of their scope often will use a character entity reference to achieve the desired effect. For instance, θ can be written &theta;, regardless of the character encoding's support of Greek letters.

This works nicely for limited use of special characters, but say you wanted this sentence of Chinese text: 激光, 這兩個字是甚麼意思. The ampersand encoded version would look like this:

&#28608;&#20809;, &#36889;&#20841;&#20491;&#23383;&#26159;&#29978;&#40636;&#24847;&#24605;

Extremely inconvenient for those of us who actually know what character entities are, totally unintelligible to poor users who don't! Even the slightly more user-friendly, "intelligible" character entities like &theta; will leave users who are uninterested in learning HTML scratching their heads. On the other hand, if they see θ in an edit box, they'll know that it's a special character, and treat it accordingly, even if they don't know how to write that character themselves.

Wikipedia is a great case study for an application that originally used ISO-8859-1 but switched to UTF-8 when it became far to cumbersome to support foreign languages. Bots will now actually go through articles and convert character entities to their corresponding real characters for the sake of user-friendliness and searchability. See Meta's page on special characters for more details.

Forms

While we're on the tack of users, how do non-UTF-8 web forms deal with characters that are outside of their character set? Rather than discuss what UTF-8 does right, we're going to show what could go wrong if you didn't use UTF-8 and people tried to use characters outside of your character encoding.

The troubles are large, extensive, and extremely difficult to fix (or, at least, difficult enough that if you had the time and resources to invest in doing the fix, you would be probably better off migrating to UTF-8). There are two types of form submission: application/x-www-form-urlencoded which is used for GET and by default for POST, and multipart/form-data which may be used by POST, and is required when you want to upload files.

The following is a summarization of notes from FORM submission and i18n. That document contains lots of useful information, but is written in a rambly manner, so here I try to get right to the point. (Note: the original has disappeared off the web, so I am linking to the Web Archive copy.)

application/x-www-form-urlencoded

This is the Content-Type that GET requests must use, and POST requests use by default. It involves the ubiquitous percent encoding format that looks something like: %C3%86. There is no official way of determining the character encoding of such a request, since the percent encoding operates on a byte level, so it is usually assumed that it is the same as the encoding the page containing the form was submitted in. (RFC 3986 recommends that textual identifiers be translated to UTF-8; however, browser compliance is spotty.) You'll run into very few problems if you only use characters in the character encoding you chose.

However, once you start adding characters outside of your encoding (and this is a lot more common than you may think: take curly "smart" quotes from Microsoft as an example), a whole manner of strange things start to happen. Depending on the browser you're using, they might:

To properly guard against these behaviors, you'd have to sniff out the browser agent, compile a database of different behaviors, and take appropriate conversion action against the string (disregarding a spate of extremely mysterious, random and devastating bugs Internet Explorer manifests every once in a while). Or you could use UTF-8 and rest easy knowing that none of this could possibly happen since UTF-8 supports every character.

multipart/form-data

Multipart form submission takes away a lot of the ambiguity that percent-encoding had: the server now can explicitly ask for certain encodings, and the client can explicitly tell the server during the form submission what encoding the fields are in.

There are two ways you go with this functionality: leave it unset and have the browser send in the same encoding as the page, or set it to UTF-8 and then do another conversion server-side. Each method has deficiencies, especially the former.

If you tell the browser to send the form in the same encoding as the page, you still have the trouble of what to do with characters that are outside of the character encoding's range. The behavior, once again, varies: Firefox 2.0 converts them to character entity references while Internet Explorer 7.0 mangles them beyond intelligibility. For serious internationalization purposes, this is not an option.

The other possibility is to set Accept-Encoding to UTF-8, which begs the question: Why aren't you using UTF-8 for everything then? This route is more palatable, but there's a notable caveat: your data will come in as UTF-8, so you will have to explicitly convert it into your favored local character encoding.

I object to this approach on idealogical grounds: you're digging yourself deeper into the hole when you could have been converting to UTF-8 instead. And, of course, you can't use this method for GET requests.

Well supported

Almost every modern browser in the wild today has full UTF-8 and Unicode support: the number of troublesome cases can be counted with the fingers of one hand, and these browsers usually have trouble with other character encodings too. Problems users usually encounter stem from the lack of appropriate fonts to display the characters (once again, this applies to all character encodings and HTML entities) or Internet Explorer's lack of intelligent font picking (which can be worked around).

We will go into more detail about how to deal with edge cases in the browser world in the Migration section, but rest assured that converting to UTF-8, if done correctly, will not result in users hounding you about broken pages.

HTML Purifier

And finally, we get to HTML Purifier. HTML Purifier is built to deal with UTF-8: any indications otherwise are the result of an encoder that converts text from your preferred encoding to UTF-8, and back again. HTML Purifier never touches anything else, and leaves it up to the module iconv to do the dirty work.

This approach, however, is not perfect. iconv is blithely unaware of HTML character entities. HTML Purifier, in order to protect against sophisticated escaping schemes, normalizes all character and numeric entity references before processing the text. This leads to one important ramification:

Any character that is not supported by the target character set, regardless of whether or not it is in the form of a character entity reference or a raw character, will be silently ignored.

Example of this principle at work: say you have &theta; in your HTML, but the output is in Latin-1 (which, understandably, does not understand Greek), the following process will occur (assuming you've set the encoding correctly using %Core.Encoding):

This behaviour is quite unsatisfactory. It is a deal-breaker for international applications, and it can be mildly annoying for the provincial soul who occasionally needs a special character. Since 1.4.0, HTML Purifier has provided a slightly more palatable workaround using %Core.EscapeNonASCIICharacters. The process now looks like:

...which means that this is only good for an occasional foray into the land of Unicode characters, and is totally unacceptable for Chinese or Japanese texts. The even bigger kicker is that, supposing the input encoding was actually ISO-8859-7, which does support theta, the character would get converted into a character entity reference anyway! (The Encoder does not discriminate).

The current functionality is about where HTML Purifier will be for the rest of eternity. HTML Purifier could attempt to preserve the original form of the character references so that they could be substituted back in, only the DOM extension kills them off irreversibly. HTML Purifier could also attempt to be smart and only convert non-ASCII characters that weren't supported by the target encoding, but that would require reimplementing iconv with HTML awareness, something I will not do.

So there: either it's UTF-8 or crippled international support. Your pick! (and I'm not being sarcastic here: some people could care less about other languages).

Migrate to UTF-8

So, you've decided to bite the bullet, and want to migrate to UTF-8. Note that this is not for the faint-hearted, and you should expect the process to take longer than you think it will take.

The general idea is that you convert all existing text to UTF-8, and then you set all the headers and META tags we discussed earlier to UTF-8. There are many ways going about doing this: you could write a conversion script that runs through the database and re-encodes everything as UTF-8 or you could do the conversion on the fly when someone reads the page. The details depend on your system, but I will cover some of the more subtle points of migration that may trip you up.

Configuring your database

Most modern databases, the most prominent open-source ones being MySQL 4.1+ and PostgreSQL, support character encodings. If you're switching to UTF-8, logically speaking, you'd want to make sure your database knows about the change too. There are some caveats though:

Legit method

Standardization in terms of SQL syntax for specifying character encodings is notoriously spotty. Refer to your respective database's documentation on how to do this properly.

For MySQL, ALTER will magically perform the character encoding conversion for you. However, you have to make sure that the text inside the column is what is says it is: if you had put Shift-JIS in an ISO 8859-1 column, MySQL will irreversibly mangle the text when you try to convert it to UTF-8. You'll have to convert it to a binary field, convert it to a Shift-JIS field (the real encoding), and then finally to UTF-8. Many a website had pages irreversibly mangled because they didn't realize that they'd been deluding themselves about the character encoding all along; don't become the next victim.

For PostgreSQL, there appears to be no direct way to change the encoding of a database (as of 8.2). You will have to dump the data, and then reimport it into a new table. Make sure that your client encoding is set properly: this is how PostgreSQL knows to perform an encoding conversion.

Many times, you will be also asked about the "collation" of the new column. Collation is how a DBMS sorts text, like ordering B, C and A into A, B and C (the problem gets surprisingly complicated when you get to languages like Thai and Japanese). If in doubt, going with the default setting is usually a safe bet.

Once the conversion is all said and done, you still have to remember to set the client encoding (your encoding) properly on each database connection using SET NAMES (which is standard SQL and is usually supported).

Binary

Due to the aforementioned compatibility issues, a more interoperable way of storing UTF-8 text is to stuff it in a binary datatype. CHAR becomes BINARY, VARCHAR becomes VARBINARY and TEXT becomes BLOB. Doing so can save you some huge headaches:

MediaWiki, a very prominent international application, uses binary fields for storing their data because of point three.

There are drawbacks, of course:

Choose based on your circumstances.

Text editor

For more flat-file oriented systems, you will often be tasked with converting reams of existing text and HTML files into UTF-8, as well as making sure that all new files uploaded are properly encoded. Once again, I can only point vaguely in the right direction for converting your existing files: make sure you backup, make sure you use iconv(), and make sure you know what the original character encoding of the files is (or are, depending on the tidiness of your system).

However, I can proffer more specific advice on the subject of text editors. Many text editors have notoriously spotty Unicode support. To find out how your editor is doing, you can check out this list or Wikipedia's list. I personally use Notepad++, which works like a charm when it comes to UTF-8. Usually, you will have to explicitly tell the editor through some dialogue (usually Save as or Format) what encoding you want it to use. An editor will often offer "Unicode" as a method of saving, which is ambiguous. Make sure you know whether or not they really mean UTF-8 or UTF-16 (which is another flavor of Unicode).

The two things to look out for are whether or not the editor supports font mixing (multiple fonts in one document) and whether or not it adds a BOM. Font mixing is important because fonts rarely have support for every language known to mankind: in order to be flexible, an editor must be able to take a little from here and a little from there, otherwise all your Chinese characters will come as nice boxes. We'll discuss BOM below.

Byte Order Mark (headers already sent!)

The BOM, or Byte Order Mark, is a magical, invisible character placed at the beginning of UTF-8 files to tell people what the encoding is and what the endianness of the text is. It is also unnecessary.

Because it's invisible, it often catches people by surprise when it starts doing things it shouldn't be doing. For example, this PHP file:

BOM<?php
header('Location: index.php');
?>

...will fail with the all too familiar Headers already sent PHP error. And because the BOM is invisible, this culprit will go unnoticed. My suggestion is to only use ASCII in PHP pages, but if you must, make sure the page is saved WITHOUT the BOM.

The headers the error is referring to are HTTP headers, which are sent to the browser before any HTML to tell it various information. The moment any regular text (and yes, a BOM counts as ordinary text) is output, the headers must be sent, and you are not allowed to send anymore. Thus, the error.

If you are reading in text files to insert into the middle of another page, it is strongly advised (but not strictly necessary) that you replace out the UTF-8 byte sequence for BOM "\xEF\xBB\xBF" before inserting it in, via:

$text = str_replace("\xEF\xBB\xBF", '', $text);

Fonts

Generally speaking, people who are having trouble with fonts fall into two categories:

Yes, there's always a chance where an English user happens across a Sinhalese website and doesn't have the right font. But an English user who happens not to have the right fonts probably has no business reading Sinhalese anyway. So we'll deal with the other two edge cases.

Obscure scripts

If you run a Bengali website, you may get comments from users who would like to read your website but get heaps of question marks or other meaningless characters. Fixing this problem requires the installation of a font or language pack which is often highly dependent on what the language is. Here is an example of such a help file for the Bengali language; I am sure there are others out there too. You just have to point users to the appropriate help file.

Occasional use

A prime example of when you'll see some very obscure Unicode characters embedded in what otherwise would be very bland ASCII are letters of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), use to designate pronunciations in a very standard manner (you probably see them all the time in your dictionary). Your average font probably won't have support for all of the IPA characters like ʘ (bilabial click) or ʒ (voiced postalveolar fricative). So what's a poor browser to do? Font mix! Smart browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 will borrow glyphs from other fonts in order to make sure that all the characters display properly.

But what happens when the browser isn't smart and happens to be the most widely used browser in the entire world? Microsoft IE 6 is not smart enough to borrow from other fonts when a character isn't present, so more often than not you'll be slapped with a nice big �. To get things to work, MSIE 6 needs a little nudge. You could configure it to use a different font to render the text, but you can achieve the same effect by selectively changing the font for blocks of special characters to known good Unicode fonts.

Fortunately, the folks over at Wikipedia have already done all the heavy lifting for you. Get the CSS from the horses mouth here: Common.css, and search for ".IPA" There are also a smattering of other classes you can use for other purposes, check out this page for more details. For you lazy ones, this should work:

.Unicode {
        font-family: Code2000, "TITUS Cyberbit Basic", "Doulos SIL",
            "Chrysanthi Unicode", "Bitstream Cyberbit",
            "Bitstream CyberBase", Thryomanes, Gentium, GentiumAlt,
            "Lucida Grande", "Arial Unicode MS", "Microsoft Sans Serif",
            "Lucida Sans Unicode";
        font-family /**/:inherit; /* resets fonts for everyone but IE6 */
}

The standard usage goes along the lines of <span class="Unicode">Crazy Unicode stuff here</span>. Characters in the Windows Glyph List usually don't need to be fixed, but for anything else you probably want to play it safe. Unless, of course, you don't care about IE6 users.

Dealing with variable width in functions

When people claim that PHP6 will solve all our Unicode problems, they're misinformed. It will not fix any of the aforementioned troubles. It will, however, fix the problem we are about to discuss: processing UTF-8 text in PHP.

PHP (as of PHP5) is blithely unaware of the existence of UTF-8 (with a few notable exceptions). Sometimes, this will cause problems, other times, this won't. So far, we've avoided discussing the architecture of UTF-8, so, we must first ask, what is UTF-8? Yes, it supports Unicode, and yes, it is variable width. Other traits:

Each of these traits affect different domains of text processing in different ways. It is beyond the scope of this document to explain what precisely these implications are. PHPWact provides a very good reference document on what to expect from each function, although coverage is spotty in some areas. Their more general notes on character sets are also worth looking at for information on UTF-8. Some rules of thumb when dealing with Unicode text:

Note: this list applies to UTF-8 encoded text only: if you have a string that you are 100% sure is ASCII, be my guest and use strtolower (HTML Purifier uses this function.)

Regardless, always think in bytes, not characters. If you use strpos() to find the position of a character, it will be in bytes, but this usually won't matter since substr() also operates with byte indices!

You'll also need to make sure your UTF-8 is well-formed and will probably need replacements for some of these functions. I recommend using Harry Fuecks' PHP UTF-8 library, rather than use mb_string directly. HTML Purifier also defines a few useful UTF-8 compatible functions: check out Encoder.php in the /library/HTMLPurifier/ directory.

Well, that's it. Hopefully this document has served as a very practical springboard into knowledge of how UTF-8 works. You may have decided that you don't want to migrate yet: that's fine, just know what will happen to your output and what bug reports you may receive.

Many other developers have already discussed the subject of Unicode, UTF-8 and internationalization, and I would like to defer to them for a more in-depth look into character sets and encodings.