Unicode Fonts for Biblical Studies

The problem of portable documents and font substitution

Suppose you compose your paper at home, then bring the file to the computer lab to use our laser printers. But we don't have the fonts you used for Greek and Hebrew. What happens when you print? Suppose you copy a block of Greek or Hebrew on a library computer, take the file home, and discover you do not have the specific fonts. What happens? Suppose after graduation you are revising part of your dissertation for a journal article, and the journal requires different fonts. How easy is it to change? Can you trust the substitution? This is the problem of document portability and the related issue of font substitution.

The Unicode solution

Unicode is a way of encoding and storing characters. Unicode guarantees that an English language w is stored as a w, and a Greek language ω is stored as an ω, no matter what computer or operating system or software you use. When you move a file from one computer to another, and font substitution takes place, your Greek omega will never ever turn into an English w, or vice versa. A complete Unicode font set should faithfully render the proper characters in any document you ever create in any language on any computer with any word processor, now or any time in the foreseeable future. Further, all modern web browsers can read and display Unicode characters. So unicode is a good way to share Greek and Hebrew on the web.

Unicode support still imperfect

Unicode font substitution never corrupts text, but there can still be problems displaying or printing characters. Many Unicode font sets are incomplete. They will display some but not all Unicode characters. So it is possible that when you substitute one Unicode font set for the another Unicode font set, some characters will display as goobers or as blank spaces. For example, many Unicode font sets lack support for Chinese. Diacritical marks are also a potential cause of trouble. For example, an acute accent over an e can be stored as one precomposed character or it can be stored as two separate characters that your software displays as one character. If you create an accented e using a single precomposed character in one Unicode font, it may not display in an incomplete Unicode font that lacks the precomposed glyph (depending on what substitution takes place). Modern Greek is monotonic, using only a single accent, but ancient Greek is polytonic (multiple accents and combinations). Some Unicode fonts display only a single accent. If a document with Greek polytonic characters is opened on a Windows system which has only monotonic Unicode fonts, Windows will use font substitution. A single word may render with two different fonts. This can be both ugly and confusing. Fortunately, both Windows and Mac OS come with nearly complete Unicode font sets. Arial Unicode MS is distributed with MS Office and with Mac OS X v10.5, for example. Palatino Linotype is shipped with Windows 2000 or later, and Microsoft Office Professional and to my eye looks better than Arial Unicode MS. Many free Unicode font sets are available. Just force Greek and Hebrew to that complete Unicode font, and the text should display or print correctly.

There are other potential problems. There are no Unicode standards for the special characters used for OT and NT textual criticism. Controversy surrounds how to handle a few very exotic languages. For example, Unicode cuneiform exists, but is not entirely satisfactory in the eyes of many critics. Unicode is not yet an exhaustive solution. In spite of these limitations, Unicode fonts are the best way to create portable documents that will render properly.

Recommended FREE Unicode font sets

At present (6/2009), we recommend the Cardo Unicode font for biblical studies. It is free. It is included in the Tyndale Unicode Font kit along with instructions and installation help for native Greek and Hebrew keyboarding.

SBL has released two Unicode fonts, SBL Greek and SBL Hebrew. They are free for non-profit use. They are still (as of 6/2009) being modified slightly. Once they have stabilized they will be combined into one biblical studies font which will probably become the international standard.