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Lecture 02: Writing Systems and Unicode


History of Writing



Use Python 2.x for the following exercises. Python 2.x has two kinds of strings:

  • regular strings (byte sequences), written as in "abc"
  • unicode strings, written as in u"abc"

Furthermore, the default encoding for strings in Pyton 2.x is set to "ascii", which means that you will get an error if you try to print anything that's not an ASCII character:

>>> print u"\u1000"
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character u'\u1000'
in position 0: ordinal not in range(128)
If you want to see interesting Unicode characters, you need to explicitly encode your strings in your terminal's encoding. The default terminal emulator under Gnome uses a "utf-8" encoding. If you just encode, the weird characters show up escaped:
>>> u"\u1000".encode('utf-8')
If you actually want this 8-bit string sent to the console literally, you need to print them explicitly:
>>> print u"\u1000".encode("utf-8")
However, you don't actually need to display any of these strings in order to do the exercises (although you may find it useful).

Many Unicode fonts do not have glyphs for all Unicode characters; one font that tries for complete coverage of the Basic Multilingual Plane is the ``unifont'' font. On Debian and Ubuntu, you can apt-get install ttf-unifont (for other platforms, search for Unifont on Google and follow the instructions). To make a Gnome terminal that uses Unifont, create a new profile and select ``unifont'' as the font.

You can put extended Unicode characters into strings using quoting:

  • u"\u1234" yields a character that is representable as a 16 bit codepoint. This always takes four hex digits.
  • u"\U00010000 yields a character from an ``astral plane''. This always takes 8 hex digits.

Python Unicode

Write a pair of functions that convert a Python unicode string to a list of integer codepoints and back.


>>> s = u"\ud800\udc00"
>>> len(s)
>>> len(s.encode("utf-16").decode("utf-16"))
What happens if you use utf-8 instead of utf-16?


>>> len("x".encode("utf-16"))


Write a pair of functions, utf8_to_codepoints and codepoints_to_utf8 for decoding and encoding UTF-8.

Unicode Leet Speak

Write a function unileet(s) that takes any string of English letter, digits, spaces, hyphens, periods, and commas, and returns a readable Unicode string that uses no ASCII characters whatsoever. The closer your resulting string looks to the original, the better.