Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Word 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Word, click here: Understanding Unicode Characters.

Understanding Unicode Characters

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated November 13, 2014)

You may have heard of the term Unicode before, and wondered what it meant. Normal single-byte encoding schemes (such as ASCII and ANSI) allow only up to 256 unique individual characters to be encoded and displayed on the computer. In the global computer community, where each member is required to work in their own language, this is a problem. There are far more than 256 characters in common use throughout the world.

This is where Unicode comes into play. The Unicode standard requires the allocation of two bytes (sixteen bits) for encoding each character. This means that there can be 65,536 unique characters defined. This standard, devised and promoted by the Unicode Consortium (http://www.unicode.org), allows for the display of virtually all the unique language characters in the world. A team of computer professionals, linguists, and scholars worked on the actual development of Unicode.

The use of two bytes to define each character means that Unicode can be used to encode most of the characters used in the world's major languages. There is an extension mechanism built into the standard, as well, which means that it is possible to encode close to a million more characters, if necessary. This ability should be sufficient for all known language requirements, plus the encoding of all the historic scripts of the world. (This includes languages and symbols that are no longer in use.)

As presently defined, Unicode 6.1 (the latest version) includes codes for characters used in the major written languages of the world, including Arabic, Armenian, Balinese, Bengali, Bopomofo, Buhid, Canadian Syllabics, Cherokee, Chinese, Cyrillic, Deseret, Devanagari, Ethiopic, Georgian, Gothic, Greek, Gujarati, Gurmukhi, Han, Hangul, Hanunoo, Hebrew, Hiragana, Kannada, Katakana, Khmer, Lao, Latin, Malayalam, Mongolian, Myanmar, Ogham, Old Italic (Etruscan), Oriya, Phoenician, Runic, Sinhala, Syriac, Tagalog, Tagbanwa, Tamil, Telugu, Thaana, Thai, Tibetan, and Yi. Work is progressing to add more characters from lesser-known languages.

In addition, Unicode also includes many different symbols, including numbers, general diacritics, general punctuation, general symbols, dingbats, arrows, blocks, box drawing forms, geometric shapes, mathematical symbols, musical symbols (western and byzantine), technical symbols, braille patterns, and Kangxi radicals.

Unicode is supported in all modern versions of Windows and Word.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (1788) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Word (Word 2007 and later) here: Understanding Unicode Characters.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He  is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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