Why you should use Junicode

Something more than ten years ago, I released the first version of the Old English Font Pack, which addressed a problem that medievalists had faced since the appearance of the earliest personal computers: the limited character sets of these computers did not include the characters we needed. At the time I released the Font Pack, the Macintosh character set did not include þ or ð. While the Microsoft Windows character set included þ, ð and æ, it did not include Middle English yogh or vowel+macron combinations. The maker of a font for medievalists could not simply add these characters to existing fonts, which were limited in size to 256 characters. Instead, I and others who made such fonts put the characters we needed in places normally occupied by characters we didn't need. This procedure worked—sorta.

The trouble was that the fonts we created conformed to no standard, and we did not even agree on a de facto standard among ourselves. The result was that if you got hold of a document created with, say, Junius Modern, you had to track down a copy of Junius Modern if you wanted to read it. Other fonts for medievalists, Nero for example, would not do. When the Web became popular, the same applied there: if a Web-based document used the non-standard encoding of Junius Modern, only those who had that font could view the documents. Fine for medievalists, but you couldn't expect anyone else to go to that much trouble.

The fonts in the Old English Font Pack nearly all have a non-standard encoding (the exception is "Junius Standard"), and so documents created with them all suffer from this problem. I've left them on my website so that you can download them if you need them; but you should do so only so that you can read existing documents. If you are creating a document in Old or Middle English, there is a better solution.

The Unicode standard expands the character set used by most computers from a maximum of 256 to a maximum of over a million. That maximum is purely theoretical: the Unicode Consortium is far from filling up all those spaces. But the standard now (as of version 4.0) includes nearly 100,000 characters and control codes; and it reserves a generous 137,468 places for private use. As of version 3.2, all of the characters commonly used in Old and Middle English texts had been included in the Unicode standard. These included vowels with macrons (including the elusive æ+macron and y+macron), g and c with dots, the Tironian nota, and more. The standard also included IPA symbols, Oghams, Runes, and Gothic script. Unicode has been supported in Microsoft Windows since the release of Windows 95, and in the Macintosh since Mac/OS 8.

Few fonts, if any, contain all of the characters in the Unicode standard; no one has ever expected any font to do so. Rather, font designers have created general-purpose fonts (such as those that come with Microsoft Windows) based on the standard, or fonts for special purposes, selecting relevant characters from the standard. Junicode is one such special-purpose font. It selects from the Unicode standard the characters that are most useful to medievalists. Characters that medievalists need but are not (yet) part of the standard are included in the Private Use Area.

Your rewards for using Junicode or another Unicode-based font will be very great. No longer will you have to worry about your documents being unintelligible to others. And because modern web browsers are Unicode-aware, documents you post on the web, if encoded in UTF-8 (a style of encoding that can handle the extended Unicode character set), will be accessible to everyone whose computer supports the standard—not just those with a particular font. Further, your documents will not become obsolete, even if "Junicode" becomes unavailable. Any particular font may come or go, but the Unicode standard will remain.

For an example of how web documents can be presented in a standards-compliant way and still display a rich character set, see my Electronic Introduction to Old English or the new Old English Aerobics Reader.