Yet another Unicode Demystification
Oct. 14, 2020

String is an array of characters. Each character is 1 byte.

But there's more to texts.

Binary machines and ASCII

Computer memories are binary: slots which can store just zeros and ones. Numbers and binaries get along pretty well. But for charecters and alphabets, we need some way of encoding them into binary sequences.

A widespread encoding for alphabetic characters is ASCII(American Standard Code for Information Interchange). It consists all the uppercase and lowercase English letters, numeric digits, some special characters like punctuations and some unprintable characters. We can see what the table looks like here.

ASCII table basically maps each alphabet/character to a number which can then be stored in computer. There are 128 different ASCII characters which can be represented by 7 bits. So, the word "Tom" would be represented in ASCII as: 1010100 1101111 1101101

Note that, when ASCII characters are represented as bytes then the first bit is always 0.

This representation was going all well in the past until computers were adopted world wide. Different parts of world used different encodings for their character sets.

Mighty Unicode

This unmoderated encodings being used all over the world produced many incompatible systems as a result of which The Unicode Consortium was established to collect and catalog all the alphabets of all spoken languages in the world. This was the first step towards a standard system for worldwide interchange, processing and display of texts in various languages.

Strictly speaking, the standard organizes characters into scripts instead of languages because different languages can use one script. For example, Latin script can be used by many European and American languages.

Now, every character in each script has a unique identifying number which we call a code point, usually written in hexadecimal and preceeded by U+. For example, Unicode Codepoint for the character 'A'(67 = 0x43) is U+0043. Corresponding to each code point is a glyph, which is the graphic representation of the symbol. For example, the unicode value for the glyph in Devnagari script is U+0915.

The range of Unicode code space is 0 to 10FFFF which is 21 bits. Because computer memory is normally organized into 8-bit bytes, it would be possible to use 3 bytes to store each code point with leading 3 bits unused. However, most computers process information in chunks of 32 or 64 bits[as of 2020], it will be effective to store each code point in a 32 bit(4 bytes) chunk even if the leading 11 bits would useless and set to zero. This method of encoding is what we've known or heard as UTF-32, UTF meaning Unicode Transfer Format.

As an example, let's see how the letter z is stored in UTF-32. It's ASCII value is 0x7A which gives the code point U+007A. Now we just need to prefix the leading zeroes to get 0000 0000 0000 0000 0111 1010


While UTF-32 is effective for processing texts, it is inefficient for storing and transmitting them. If we have a file with mostly ASCII characters, three fourth of the file space will be occupied by zeros.

UTF-8 to the rescue

We must have seen utf-8 almost everywhere. This is a very popular encoding which can represent the unicode code points with one to 3 bytes, using a single byte for ASCII, without loosing compatibility with ASCII at all.

Here are the rules for UTF-8 encoding:

Code points from U+0000 to U+007F

These consist of our old ASCII friends. The first bit is 0 and the rest 7 bits represent the characters.

Code points over U+007F

These obviously require more than 1 byte. The first byte contains information about how many bytes will be used as well as some text data. The subsequent bytes, called as continuation bytes will have first two bits set as 10 meaning this is a continuation byte and last 6 bits to store codepoint data.

Now the first byte. If total of two bytes will be used, it will be prefixed by 110, for 3 bytes it will be prefixed by 1110 and for 4 btes it will be prefixed by 11110. You can see the pattern here. The number of 1s in the prefix denote the number of bytes. The 1s are immediately followed by a 0 after which the remaining bits of the first byte are used for data. The remaining bits are distributed to subsequent continuation bytes.

The following table clarifies the concept. Note that the xs denote data bits for the codepoint. Source at the bottom

An Example doesn't hurt

Now let's try it out with a code point U+1F923 whose corresponding emoticon is '🤣' [Laughing at programmer's misery].

  • First, note that it lies between U+10000 and U+1FFFFF.
  • So, we need 4 bytes to represent this code point.
  • The 21 bits are: 0 0001 1111 1001 0010 0011 each corresponding to 1, F, 9, 2 and 3.
  • The first byte becomes 11110 000. Note the four leading 1's followed by a zero. The last 3 zeros are first 3 bits from above 21 bits.
  • Let's construct second byte which is a continuation by prefixing with 10. We get: 10 01 1111.
  • Similarly, the third byte becomes: 10 1001 00.
  • And the last byte: 10 10 0011.
  • Combining all of them, the UTF-8 bits are: 11110000 10011111 10100100 10100011 which, in hex, is: 0xF09F A4A3.

Pheww!! That was something. I hope Unicodes are now friendlier than before.

Summarized from Computer Systems, J. Stanley Warford: Chapter 3

[October 14 2020. Bharatpur]