Re: Non-standard 8-bit fonts still in use

From: Don Osborn <>
Date: Sat, 30 Apr 2016 13:27:02 -0400

Last October I posted about persistence of old modified/hacked 8-bit
fonts, with an example from Mali. This is a quick follow up, with
belated thanks to those who responded to that post on and off list, and
a set of examples from China and Nigeria. I conclude below with some
thoughts about what this says about dissemination of information about

First, a sequel to the original example of Bambara Arial, which shows a
really bad outcome of use of a that very non-Unicode font in a Bambara
translation of a hand-washing poster (put out during the recent ebola

Second, is a number of materials for Hausa speakers learning Chinese, in
which modified fonts were used for Hausa boko text (with hooked
letters) and Chinese pinyin text (with tone-marked vowels). These are
mentioned in a pair of posts on the same blog about the growing number
of Chinese - Hausa language materials:


For any interested in delving deeper, there are 3 PDF documents in
particular, apparently from the beginning of three separate
publications. Below are shortened links to the Google cached versions
(these show the actual characters of the PDFs, and of course have links
to the originals):

  * 目录 Abin da Ke Ciki ("Table of contents," plus first chapter in
    elementary level text)
  * 前言 ("Forward," plus what is evidently a first lesson on
  * 说明 Gabatarwa ("Introduction," plus first lesson on pinyin)

Although I've previously raised questions about non-Unicode text in
PDFs, the issue with these is not PDF encoding, but rather non-standard
fonts used in composing documents, which must be saved as PDFs in order
to permit sharing, since those fonts make sharing as text/wordprocessor
documents problematic (see the Bambara example above). The PDF documents
appear fine, and would print as intended, but the underlying text
prevents normal searches or reuse. It appears that the non standard
fonts in the three documents mentioned include one from Nigeria for the
Hausa boko (which may date to the mid-1990s), and one or more from China
for the pinyin. The Chinese hanzi text appears not to have any problems.
Dates on these documents are not clear except for one (前言) which
evidently was produced in 2010.

Among the replies to my post last October, was the suggestion that input
may be a reason for people creating documents with extended Latin or
digraphs, and thinking only of products that an be read and printed, to
stay with old familiar 8-bit solutions. Substituting characters such
that the key for an otherwise unused character yields a hooked letter or
a tone-marked vowel may be seen as sufficient for their purposes and
easier than switching to Unicode and sorting out a new keyboard system.
Or maybe Unicode is not fully understood.

If the latter be the case, that would seem to have implications
regarding dissemination of information about Unicode. "If you
standardize it, they will adopt" certainly holds for industry and
well-informed user communities (such as in open source software), but
not necessarily for more localized initiatives. This is not to seek to
assign blame in any way, but rather to point out what seems to be a
persistent issue with long term costs in terms of usability of text in
writing systems as diverse as Bambara, Hausa boko, and Chinese pinyin.

Don Osborn

On 10/15/2015 8:22 PM, Don Osborn wrote:
> I was surprised to learn of continued reference to and presumably use
> of 8-bit fonts modified two decades ago for the extended Latin
> alphabets of Malian languages, and wondered if anyone has similar
> observations in other countries. Or if there have been any recent
> studies of adoption of Unicode fonts in the place of local 8-bit fonts
> for extended Latin (or non-Latin) in local language computing.
> At various times in the past I have encountered the idea that local
> languages with extended alphabets in Africa require special fonts
> (that region being my main geographic area of experience with
> multilingual computing), but assumed that this notion was fading away.
> See my recent blog post for a quick and by no means complete
> discussion about this topic, which of course has to do with more than
> just the fonts themselves:
> TIA for any feedback.
> Don Osborn
Received on Sat Apr 30 2016 - 12:28:53 CDT

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