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Tamil script Code for Information Interchange (TSCII) and
other 8-bit Coded Bilingual Character Sets of ISO /IEC /ECMA

Here is an interesting historical overview I found on the Net, covering the development of font encoding standards, starting from Morse, Teleprinter codes (4/5 bit), through 6-7-8 bit encodings, all the way to 16-bit multilingual Unicode.

This chapter first briefly reviews the history of character encoding. Following from this is a discussion of standard and non-standard native encoding systems, and an evaluation of the efforts to unify these character codes. Then we move on to discuss Unicode as well as various Unicode Transformation Formats (UTFs). As a conclusion, we recommend that Unicode (UTF8, to be precise) be used in corpus construction.

What is character encoding about?

The need for electronic character encoding first arose when people tried to send messages via telegraph lines using, for example, the Morse code3. The Morse code encodes alphabets and other characters, like major punctuation marks, as dots and dashes, which respectively represent short and long electrical signals. While telegraphs already existed when the Morse code was invented, the earlier telegraph relied on varying voltages sent via a telegraph line to represent various characters. The earlier approach was basically different from the Morse code in that with this former approach the line is always "on" whereas with the latter, the line is sometimes "on" and sometimes "off". The binary "on" and "off" signals are what, at the lowest level, modern computers use (i.e. 0 and 1) to encode characters. As such, the Morse code is considered here as the beginning of character encoding. Note, however, that character encoding in the Morse code is also different from how modern computers encode data. Whilst modern computers use a succession of "on" and "off" signals to present a character, the Morse code uses a succession of "on" impulses (e.g. the sequences of .- / -... / -.-. stand respectively for capital letters A, B and C), which are separated from other sequences by "off" impulses.

A later advance in character encoding is the Baudot code, invented by Frenchman Jean-Maurice-Émile Baudot (1845-1903) for teleprinters in 1874. The Baudot code is a 5-bit character code that uses a succession of "on" and "off" codes as modern computers do (e.g. 00011 without shifting represents capital letter A). As the code can only encode 32 (i.e. 25) characters at one level (or "plane"), Baudot employs a "lock shift scheme" (similar to the SHIFT and CAPS LOCK keys on your computer keyboard) to double the encoding capacity by shifting between two 32-character planes. This lock shift scheme not only enables the Baudot code to handle the upper and lower cases of letters in the Latin alphabet, Arabic numerals and punctuation marks, it also makes it possible to handle control characters, which are important because they provide special characters required in data transmission (e.g. signals for "start of text", "end of text" and "acknowledge") and make it possible for the text to be displayed or printed properly (e.g. special characters for "carriage return" and "line feed"). Baudot made such a great contribution to modern communication technology that the term Baud rate (i.e. the number of data signalling events occurring in a second) is quite familiar to many of us.

One drawback of 5-bit Teletype codes such as the Baudot code is that they do not allow random access to a character in a character string because random access requires each unit of data to be complete in itself, which prevents the use of code extension by means of locking shifts. However, random is essential for modern computing technology. In order to achieve this aim, an extra bit is needed. This led to 6-bit character encoding, which was used for a long time. One example of such codes is the Hollerith code, which was invented by American Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) for use with a punch card on a tabulating machine in the U.S. Census Bureau. The Hollerith code could only handle 69 characters, including upper and lower cases of Latin letters, Arabic numerals, punctuation marks and symbols. This is slightly more than what the Baudot code could handle. The Hollerith code was widely used up to the 1960s.

However, the limited encoding capacity of 6-bit character codes was already felt in the 1950s. This led to an effort on the part of telecommunication and computing industries to create a new 7-bit character code. The result of this effort is what we know today as the ASCII (the American Standard Code for Information Interchange) code. The first version of ASCII (known as ASCII-1963), when it was announced in 1963, did not include lower case letters, though there were many unallocated positions. This problem, among others, was resolved in the second version, which was announced in 1967. ASCII-1967, the version many people still know and use today, defines 96 printing characters and 32 control characters. Although ASCII was designed to avoid shifting as used in Baudot code, it does include control characters such as shift in (SI) and shift out (SO). These control characters were used later to extend the 7-bit ASCII code into the 8-bit code that includes 190 printing characters (cf. Searle 1999).

The ASCII code was adopted by nearly all computer manufacturers and later turned into an international standard (ISO 646) by the International Standard Organization (ISO) in 1972. One exception was IBM, the dominant force in the computing market in the 1960s and 1970s4. Either for the sake of backward compatibility or as a marketing strategy, we do not know which for sure, IBM created a 6-bit character code called BCDIC (Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code) and later extended this code to the 8-bit EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code). As EBCDIC is presently only used for data exchange between IBM machines, we will not discuss this scheme further.

The 7-bit ASCII, which can handle 128 (i.e. 27) characters, is sufficient for the encoding of English characters. With the increasing need to exchange data internationally, which usually involves different languages, as well as using accented Latin characters and non-Latin characters, this encoding capacity quickly turned out to be inadequate. As noted above, the extension of the 7-bit ASCII code into the 8-bit code significantly increased its encoding capacity. This increase was important, as it allowed accented characters in European languages to be included in the ASCII code. Following the standardization of the ASCII code and ISO 646, ISO formulated a new standard (ISO 2022) to outline how 7- and 8-bit character codes should be structured and extended so that native characters could be included. This standard was later applied to derive the whole ISO 8859 family of extensions of the 8-bit ASCII/ISO 646 for European languages. ISO 2022 is also the basis for deriving 16-bit (double-byte) character codes used in East Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea (the so called CJK language community).

Legacy encoding: complementary and competing character codes

The first member of the ISO 8859 family, ISO 8859-1 (unofficially known as Latin-1), was formulated in 1987 (and later revised in 1998) for Western European languages such as French, German, Spanish, Italian and the Scandinavian languages, among others. Since then, the 8859 family has extended to 15 members. However, if one examines closely the contents it is obvious that these character codes mainly aim at writing systems of European languages.

It is also clear from the table that there is considerable overlap between these standards, especially the many versions of the Latin characters. Each standard simply includes a slightly different collection of characters to optimise the performance of a particular language or group of languages. Apart from the 8859 standards, there also exist ISO 2022-compliant character codes (national variants of ISO 646) for non-European languages, including, for example, Thai (TIS 620), Indian languages (ISCII), Vietnamese (VISCII) and Japanese (JIS X 0201). In addition, as noted in the previous section, computer manufacturers such IBM, Microsoft and Apple have also published their own character codes for languages already covered by the 8859 standards. Whilst the members of the 8859 family can be considered as complementary, these manufacturer tailored "code pages" are definitely competing character codes.

Efforts to unify character codes started in the first half of the 1980s, which unsurprisingly coincides with the beginning of the Internet. Due to a number of technical, commercial and political factors, however, these efforts were pursued by three independent groups from the US, Europe and Japan. In 1984, a working group (known as WG2 today) was set up under the auspices of ISO and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to work on an international standard which has come to be known as ISO/IEC 10646. In the same year, a research project named TRON was launched in Japan, which proposed a multilingual character set and processing scheme. A similar group was established by American computer manufacturers in 1988, which is known today as the Unicode Consortium.

The TRON multilingual character set, which uses escape sequences to switch between 8 and 16 bit character sets, is designed to be "limitlessly extensible" with the aim of including all scripts used in the world. However, as this multilingual character set appears to favour CJK languages more than Western languages, and because US software producers, who are expected to dominate the operating system market in the unforeseeable future, do not support it, it is hard to imagine that the TRON multilingual character set will win widespread popularity except in East Asian countries.

ISO aimed at creating a 32-bit universal character set (UCS) that could hold space for as many as 4,294,967,296 characters, which is large enough to include all characters in modern writing systems in the world. The new standard, ISO/IEC 10646, is clearly related to the earlier ISO 646 standard discussed above. The original version of the standard (ISO/IEC DIS 10646 Version 1), nevertheless, has some drawbacks (see Gillam 2003: 53 for details). It was thus revised and renamed as ISO/IEC 10646 Version 2, which is now known as ISO/IEC 10646-1: 1993. The new version supports both 32-bit (4 octets, thus called UCS-4) and 16-bit forms (2 octets, thus called UCS-2).

The term Unicode (Unification Code) was first used in a paper by Joe Becker from Xerox. The Unicode Standard has also built on Xerox?s XCCS universal character set. Unicode was originally designed as a fixed length code, using 16 bits (2 bytes) for each character. It allows space for up to 65,536 characters. In Unicode, characters with the same "absolute shape" — where differences are attributable to typeface design — are "unified" so that more characters can be covered in this space (see Gillam 2003: 365). In addition to this native 16-bit transformation format (UTF-16), two other transformation formats have been devised to permit transmission of Unicode over byte-oriented 8-bit (UTF-8) and 7-bit (UTF-7) channels (see the next section for a discussion of various UTFs)7. In addition, Unicode has also devised a counterpart to UCS-4, namely UTF-32.

From 1991 onwards, the efforts of ISO 10646 and Unicode were merged, enabling the two to synchronize their character repertoires and the code points these characters are assigned to8. Whilst the two standards are still kept separate, great efforts have also been made to keep the two in synchronization. As such, despite some superficial differences (see Gillam 2003: 56 for details), there is a direct mapping, starting from The Unicode Standard version 1.1 onwards, between Unicode and ISO 10646-1. Although UTF-32 and UCS-4 did not refer to the same thing in the past, they are practically identical today. While Unicode UTF-16 is slightly different from UCS-2, UTF-16 is actually UCS-2 plus the surrogate mechanism (see the next section for a discussion of the surrogate mechanism).

Unicode aims to be usable on all platforms, regardless of manufacturer, vendor, software or locale. In addition to facilitating electronic data interchange between different computer systems in different countries, Unicode has also enabled a single document to contain texts from different writing systems, which was nearly impossible with native character codes. Unicode make a truly multilingual document possible.

Today, Unicode has published the 4th version of its standard. Backed up by the monopolistic position of Microsoft in the operating system market, Unicode appears to be "the strongest link". The current state of affairs suggests that Unicode has effectively "swallowed" ISO 10646. As long as Microsoft dominates the operating system market, it can be predicted that where there is Windows (Windows NT/2000 or later version), there will be Unicode. Consequently, we would recommend that all researchers engaged in electronic text collection development use Unicode.

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