Encoding Text, UTF-32 and UTF-16 – How Unicode Works (Part 1)

The standard for how to represent human writing for many years was ASCII, or American Standard Code for Information Interchange. This representation reserved 7 bits for encoding a character. This served early computing well, but did not scale as computers were used in more and more languages and cultures across the world. This article explains how this simple encoding grew into a standard that aims to represent the writing systems of every culture on Earth. This is Unicode.

At the time of this writing, I recently switched to the Firefox Internationalization team and began working on a Unicode sub-committee to help implement ICU4X. This involves reading lots of specs, and I wanted to take the time to write out my interest in the encodings of UTF-8, 16, and 32.

From first principles, let’s design our own simple encoding of the English language. Let’s see how many bits we need to encode the alphabet. Representing a to z can be done with 26 numbers. So let’s do that.

Imaginary 5 bit Character Encoding

Letter    Number     Hex    Binary
------    ------    ----    ------
     a         0    0x00         0
     b         1    0x01         1
     c         2    0x02        10
     d         3    0x03        11
     e         4    0x04       100
     f         5    0x05       101
     g         6    0x06       110
     h         7    0x07       111
     i         8    0x08      1000
     j         9    0x09      1001
     k        10    0x0a      1010
     l        11    0x0b      1011
     m        12    0x0c      1100
     n        13    0x0d      1101
     o        14    0x0e      1110
     p        15    0x0f      1111
     q        16    0x10     10000
     r        17    0x11     10001
     s        18    0x12     10010
     t        19    0x13     10011
     u        20    0x14     10100
     v        21    0x15     10101
     w        22    0x16     10110
     x        23    0x17     10111
     y        24    0x18     11000
     z        25    0x19     11001

At this point, we’ve needed 5 bits to represent 26 letters. However, we still have 6 values (or “code points”) left, 26-31 if written as base 10 numbers, or 0x1a to 0x1f if written as base 16. We can shove a few useful characters in the remaining bits.

Character    Number     Hex    Binary
---------    ------    ----    ------
        .        26    0x1a     11010
        ,        27    0x1b     11011
        '        28    0x1c     11100
        "        29    0x1d     11101
        $        30    0x1e     11110
        !        31    0x1f     11111

Our 5 bits are enough for encoding our somewhat bad character set. However, the early ASCII encoding system only needed 7 bits, which is 2 more than our encoding. Modern processors naturally operate on bits that come in multiples of 8. This unit of operation is known as a “word”. For instance my current laptop has a word size of 64 bits. So when my processor adds two numbers, it takes two 64 bit numbers, and runs the add operation.

When ASCII was invented a common word size was 8 bits. In fact, the hole punched tape frequently used with computers at the time had 8 holes (or bits) per line. However, the committee decided that 7 bits was a better choice, because transmissions of bits took both time and money, and so 7 bits were sufficient for their character set needs. The 7 bit encoding could handle values 0 to 127, or 0x00 to 0x7f. This is 96 more characters that we can represent if we had a 7 bit encoding scheme rather than our 5 bit scheme.

Rather than fill out the imaginary encoding above, it may be useful to examine the complete ASCII encoding scheme.

Complete ASCII Encoding

----------------------    -----------------------    ---------------------    -----------------------
NUL  0  0x00  00000000    " "  32  0x20  00100000    @  64  0x40  01000000    `    96  0x60  01100000
SOH  1  0x01  00000001      !  33  0x21  00100001    A  65  0x41  01000001    a    97  0x61  01100001
STX  2  0x02  00000010      "  34  0x22  00100010    B  66  0x42  01000010    b    98  0x62  01100010
ETX  3  0x03  00000011      #  35  0x23  00100011    C  67  0x43  01000011    c    99  0x63  01100011
EOT  4  0x04  00000100      $  36  0x24  00100100    D  68  0x44  01000100    d   100  0x64  01100100
ENQ  5  0x05  00000101      %  37  0x25  00100101    E  69  0x45  01000101    e   101  0x65  01100101
ACK  6  0x06  00000110      &  38  0x26  00100110    F  70  0x46  01000110    f   102  0x66  01100110
BEL  7  0x07  00000111      '  39  0x27  00100111    G  71  0x47  01000111    g   103  0x67  01100111
 BS  8  0x08  00001000      (  40  0x28  00101000    H  72  0x48  01001000    h   104  0x68  01101000
 HT  9  0x09  00001001      )  41  0x29  00101001    I  73  0x49  01001001    i   105  0x69  01101001
 LF 10  0x0A  00001010      *  42  0x2A  00101010    J  74  0x4A  01001010    j   106  0x6A  01101010
 VT 11  0x0B  00001011      +  43  0x2B  00101011    K  75  0x4B  01001011    k   107  0x6B  01101011
 FF 12  0x0C  00001100      ,  44  0x2C  00101100    L  76  0x4C  01001100    l   108  0x6C  01101100
 CR 13  0x0D  00001101      -  45  0x2D  00101101    M  77  0x4D  01001101    m   109  0x6D  01101101
 SO 14  0x0E  00001110      .  46  0x2E  00101110    N  78  0x4E  01001110    n   110  0x6E  01101110
 SI 15  0x0F  00001111      /  47  0x2F  00101111    O  79  0x4F  01001111    o   111  0x6F  01101111
DLE 16  0x10  00010000      0  48  0x30  00110000    P  80  0x50  01010000    p   112  0x70  01110000
DC1 17  0x11  00010001      1  49  0x31  00110001    Q  81  0x51  01010001    q   113  0x71  01110001
DC2 18  0x12  00010010      2  50  0x32  00110010    R  82  0x52  01010010    r   114  0x72  01110010
DC3 19  0x13  00010011      3  51  0x33  00110011    S  83  0x53  01010011    s   115  0x73  01110011
DC4 20  0x14  00010100      4  52  0x34  00110100    T  84  0x54  01010100    t   116  0x74  01110100
NAK 21  0x15  00010101      5  53  0x35  00110101    U  85  0x55  01010101    u   117  0x75  01110101
SYN 22  0x16  00010110      6  54  0x36  00110110    V  86  0x56  01010110    v   118  0x76  01110110
ETB 23  0x17  00010111      7  55  0x37  00110111    W  87  0x57  01010111    w   119  0x77  01110111
CAN 24  0x18  00011000      8  56  0x38  00111000    X  88  0x58  01011000    x   120  0x78  01111000
 EM 25  0x19  00011001      9  57  0x39  00111001    Y  89  0x59  01011001    y   121  0x79  01111001
SUB 26  0x1A  00011010      :  58  0x3A  00111010    Z  90  0x5A  01011010    z   122  0x7A  01111010
ESC 27  0x1B  00011011      ;  59  0x3B  00111011    [  91  0x5B  01011011    {   123  0x7B  01111011
 FS 28  0x1C  00011100      <  60  0x3C  00111100    \  92  0x5C  01011100    |   124  0x7C  01111100
 GS 29  0x1D  00011101      =  61  0x3D  00111101    ]  93  0x5D  01011101    }   125  0x7D  01111101
 RS 30  0x1E  00011110      >  62  0x3E  00111110    ^  94  0x5E  01011110    ~   126  0x7E  01111110
 US 31  0x1F  00011111      ?  63  0x3F  00111111    _  95  0x5F  01011111    DEL 127  0x7F  01111111

This table presents some interesting “letters” such as NUL 0x00, BEL 0x07, and BS 0x08. These are known as control characters. Our imaginary 5 bit encoding had no need for these non-printing characters, but early ASCII found them useful for transmitting information to terminals. NUL 0x00 is used in languages like C to signal the end of a string. BEL 0x07 could be used to signal to a device to emit a sound or a flash. BS 0x08 or backspace, may overprint the previous character.

Moving beyond English

For this entire article so far, I’ve typed only letters that could be represented in ASCII. As a US citizen whose native language is English, this is pretty useful. However, the world is much bigger than that. I speak Spanish as well, and I simply can’t represent ¡Hola! ¿Qué tal? in just ASCII. But hold on, ASCII only contains 7 bits, and modern computing typically has word sizes that are multiples of 8 bits. Expanding the range from 7 bits to 8 bits expands the range of symbols from 128 to 256. Now we can add more letters into that extra bit and represent ¡ ¿ é. This encoding is known as the Latin 1 encoding, or ISO/IEC 8859-1. This encoding includes control characters, but it expands the number of printing characters to 191.

Character    Number     Hex      Binary
---------    ------    ----    --------
        ¡       161    0xa1    10100001
        ¿       191    0xbf    10111111
        é       233    0xe9    11101001
                               ^ the 8th bits are all 1 for these new characters

What’s noteable is that with adding only 1 more bit, we can now mostly represent many more languages across the world. Not only that, but Latin 1 is backwards compatible with ASCII. This means legacy documents can still be interpreted just fine.

Languages (arguably) supported by Latin 1: Afrikaans, Albanian, Basque, Breton, Corsican, English, Faroese, Galician, Icelandic, Irish, Indonesian, Italian, Leonese, Luxembourgish, Malay, Manx, Norwegian, Occitan, Portuguese, Rhaeto-Romanic, Scottish, Gaelic, Scots, Southern, Sami, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, and Walloon.

Supporting all of human culture

We started with an imaginary 5 bit encoding scheme, moved on to 7 bit ASCII, and finally to an 8 bit Latin 1 encoding. How many more bits do we need to theoretically support all known and existing human cultures. This is a pretty tall order, but also a noble goal.

Enter Unicode.

Unicode aims to be a universal character encoding. At this point UTF-8 (or Unicode Text Format, 8 bits) is the de-facto winner in encoding text, especially on the internet. So what is Unicode precisely? According Unicode’s FAQ:

Unicode covers all the characters for all the writing systems of the world, modern and ancient. It also includes technical symbols, punctuations, and many other characters used in writing text. The Unicode Standard is intended to support the needs of all types of users, whether in business or academia, using mainstream or minority scripts.

Our imaginary 5 bit system needed to encode 26 letters of the lowercase English alphabet, while Unicode can support 1,114,112 different code points. Now it’s time to define a code point. This is the number representing some kind of character that is being encoded. Keep in mind that in ASCII, not all of these code points represented printable characters, like the BEL. This is true in Unicode, with even stranger types of code points.

It’s customary to display code points in hex representation. So for instance 0x61 is the hex value of the code point for "a" in ASCII. In base-10 notation this would be the number 97. Unicode is backwards compatible with ASCII, and to signify that the code point represents a Unicode code point, i’s hex value is typically prefixed with U+. So the “Latin Small Letter A” is designated as U+0061 in Unicode.

Here are some examples of different Unicode characters and their respective code points. Note that so far, all of these code points are completely backwards compatible with ASCII and Latin 1. However, there are still potentially 1,114,112 different code points, ranging from 0x00 to 0x10FFFF that can be represented in Unicode.

ASCII Range    Latin1 Range
-----------    ------------
U+0041    A    U+00C0     À
U+0042    B    U+00C1     Á
U+0043    C    U+00C2     Â
U+0061    a    U+00E0     à
U+0062    b    U+00E1     á
U+0063    c    U+00E2     â

How to fit 1,114,112 code points

In the 5 bit encoding scheme we could fit 32 code points. Let’s examine how many bits can fit into different sized words.

Type Size   Type Name     Max Code Points   Visual Bit Size
---------   -----------   ---------------   ---------------------------------------
   7 bits    (historic)               128                                  000_0000
   8 bits            u8               256                                 0000_0000
  16 bits           u16            65,536                       0000_0000_0000_0000
  32 bits           u32     4,294,967,296   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000

From here on out, I’m going to use the Rust type names u8, u16, and u32 for the unsigned integer types that are used to encode the code points.

Encoding code points – UTF-32

From here, it’s important to understand the distinction that the code points are documented with hex values, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is how they are actually represented in binary. It’s time to discuss encodings.

The simplest encoding method for Unicode is UTF-32, which uses a u32 for each code point. The main advantage for this approach is its simplicity, it’s fixed length. If you have an array of characters, all you have to do is index the array at some arbitrary point, and you are guaranteed that there is a code point there that matches your index position. The biggest problem here is the waste of space. Modern computing has word sizes divisible by 8. Let’s examine the bit layout of u32. (Note, I’m ignoring byte endianness for the sake of simplicity here.)

The max code points that can be represented in a u32 according to the table above is 4,394,967,296, which is way more space than is needed by Unicode’s 1,114,112 potential code points.

UTF-32 encoding wastes at least 11 bits per code point, as can be seen by this table:

                         Size       Max Code Points   Visual Bit Size
                         --------   ---------------   --------------------------------------
Not quite enough space:  20 bits         1,048,576                  0000_0000_0000_0000_0000
Minimum to fit Unicode:  21 bits         2,097,152                0_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000
       Actual u32 size:  32 bits     4,294,967,296   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000
          Wasted space:  11 bits                     ^^^^ ^^^^ ^^^

It’s really even worse in terms of representing common English texts. Consider the word "Hello" – the encoding visually looks like:

    UTF-32                                                   ASCII
    =====================================================    ==============
    Hex           Binary                                     Hex   Binary
    -----------   ---------------------------------------    ----  --------
H   0x0000_0048   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0100_1000    0x48  100_1000
e   0x0000_0065   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0110_0101    0x65  110_0101
l   0x0000_006c   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0110_1100    0x6c  110_1100
l   0x0000_006c   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0110_1100    0x6c  110_1100
o   0x0000_006f   0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000_0110_1111    0x6f  110_1111

The UTF-32 memory for this short string is primarily filled with zeros. This is a pretty hefty memory price to pay for a simple implementation. The next encodings will present more memory-optimized solutions.

Saving space with UTF-16

Instead of using a u32, let’s attempt to encode our codepoints in a smaller base unit, the 16 bit u16.

                          Size       Max Code Points   Visual Bit Size
                          --------   ---------------   -------------------------
          Size of a u16:  16 bits             65,536          0000_0000_0000_0000
 Minimum to fit Unicode:  21 bits          2,097,152   0_0000_0000_0000_0000_0000
Bits needed for Unicode:   5 bits                      ^ ^^^^

Now we have a different sort of problem, there aren’t quite enough bits to fully represent the Unicode code point space. Let’s ignore this for a moment, and see how our word "Hello" encodes into UTF-16.

    UTF-16                               ASCII
    ============================    ==============
    Hex      Binary                 Hex   Binary
    ------   -------------------    ----  --------
H   0x0048   0000_0000_0100_1000    0x48  100_1000
e   0x0065   0000_0000_0110_0101    0x65  110_0101
l   0x006c   0000_0000_0110_1100    0x6c  110_1100
l   0x006c   0000_0000_0110_1100    0x6c  110_1100
o   0x006f   0000_0000_0110_1111    0x6f  110_1111

The memory size is already looking much better! Now we only have a few bytes of “wasted” zero values. There is still the problem of those pesky missing 5 bits, but for now let’s see what we can represent with a single u32. For this we’ll take a small digression into looking at how Unicode organizes it’s code points.

Unicode Blocks

The first term to discuss is the Unicode block. This is a basic organization block for organizing characters. It is a block of contiguous code points that represents some kind of logical grouping of code points. The blocks are not uniform in size.

The first block should be familiar. It’s the Basic Latin code block. This is the range U+0000 to U+007F, and is backwards compatible with ASCII. The next code block is the Latin-1 Supplement. Together with Basic Latin these two are backwards compatible with the ISO/IEC 8859-1 Latin 1 encoding.

These blocks don’t stop there, and quickly diverge from the familiar Latin-based characters, to the most common scripts that are used across the globe. The table below contains samples of these blocks (a full listing is available here).

-----------------------------------   --------------------------   ---------------------------------------
U+0000 - U+007F  Basic Latin          U+0E00 - U+0E7F  Thai        U+2000 - U+206F  General Punctuation
U+0080 - U+00FF  Latin-1 Supplement   U+0E80 - U+0EFF  Lao         U+2190 - U+21FF  Arrows
U+0370 - U+03FF  Greek and Coptic     U+0F00 - U+0FFF  Tibetan     U+2200 - U+22FF  Mathematical Operators
U+0400 - U+04FF  Cyrillic             U+1000 - U+109F  Myanmar     U+2580 - U+259F  Block Elements
U+0530 - U+058F  Armenian             U+13A0 - U+13FF  Cherokee    U+25A0 - U+25FF  Geometric Shapes
U+0590 - U+05FF  Hebrew               U+1800 - U+18AF  Mongolian   U+2700 - U+27BF  Dingbats
U+0600 - U+06FF  Arabic               U+1B00 - U+1B7F  Balinese    U+2C80 - U+2CFF  Coptic
U+0700 - U+074F  Syriac               U+1B80 - U+1BBF  Sundanese   U+3040 - U+309F  Hiragana
U+0980 - U+09FF  Bengali              U+1BC0 - U+1BFF  Batak       U+30A0 - U+30FF  Katakana
U+0B80 - U+0BFF  Tamil                U+1C00 - U+1C4F  Lepcha      U+FFF0 - U+FFFF  Specials
...                                   ...                          ...

Unicode planes

Now the next unit of organization beyond blocks, is the plane. This term is more tightly coupled to the idea of memory. Each plane is a fixed size of 63,536 code points. This fits perfectly into a u16. The blocks listed above all fit into the first plane, the “Basic Multilingual Plane”. Most of the planes are still unassigned, and a full listing can be found here.

Plane                              Range
--------------------------------   ---------------------
Basic Multilingual Plane           0x00_0000 - 0x00_FFFF
Supplementary Multilingual Plane   0x01_0000 - 0x01_FFFF
Supplementary Ideographic Plane    0x02_0000 - 0x02_FFFF
Tertiary Ideographic Plane         0x03_0000 - 0x03_FFFF
...all other planes...             0x04_0000 – 0x10_FFFF

Fitting Unicode into a u16

The Basic Multilingual Plane contains the most common scripts in use today. It’s also quite interesting that a single plane fits into a u16. Given these two constraints, let’s encode some more interesting characters into UTF-16. For this lets take the Japanese hiragana characters となりのトトロ which make up the movie title for “My Neighbor Totoro”.

Hex      Binary              Hiragana
------   -----------------   --------
U+3068   00110000_01101000   と
U+306a   00110000_01101010   な
U+308a   00110000_10001010   り
U+306e   00110000_01101110   の
U+30c8   00110000_11001000   ト
U+30c8   00110000_11001000   ト
U+30ed   00110000_11101101   ロ

Inspecting these values we can see that there are far fewer zeros in it. The low byte is 00110000 or 0x30. Looking at the basic multilingual plane above, we can see that this fits into the U+3040 - U+309F Hiragana range of code points. So this is great, rather than just Latin characters, we can represent Japanese scripts, amongst many others. While the values 00110000 are repeating, they are not the seemingly “wasted space” of the 00000000 from the high byte of the Latin1 and ASCII encoded code points.

This is all great, but leaves the question, what happens if you want to encode something that is outside of the basic multilingual plane? For that we will examine the following emoji:

👍 U+1F44D

Copying and pasting this emoji into your search engine of choice, you can quickly look up the code point for a given symbol, which here is U+1F44D. The first thing you may notice is that the value for this code point is beyond the Basic Multilingual Plane. Referring to the planes table above, we can identify that the range 0x01_0000 to 0x01_FFFF encompasses this code point value of 0x01_F44D. This plane is the Supplementary Multilingual Plane.

For a hint of how this code point is encoded, open up the web console if your browser has it, and type the following code:

>> 2

A single character requires two u16 values to encode it.

Code units, code points, and high and low surrogates

I’m glad I did not lead this article with the title, or else my readers would have stopped right there. However, if you’ve followed along so far, let’s dive in.

Technically UTF-16 is a variable length format, and indexing into an array does not give you a code point but a code unit. The reason for this is because of higher-plane values like the 👍. This single code point requires two code units. Let’s open up the web console again and poke at some implementation details.

>> "\ud83d"

>> "\udc4d"
Hex        Binary                Emoji
--------    -------------------   ------
0x1_F44D    1_11110100_01001101   "👍"
0x0_D83D      11011000_00111101   "👍"[0]
0x0_DC4D      11011100_01001101   "👍"[1]

Here indexing into the emoji reveals two different code units. The first is U+D83D, and the second is U+DC4D. Right away we can see that both of these fit into the Basic Multilingual Plane, so it’s time to look up the code block to which they belong in that plane. The first is in range of the High Surrogates code block (U+D800 - U+DBFF) while the second is in range of the Low Surrogates (U+DC00 - U+DFFF).

Now for the magic: A high and low surrogate code unit can be combined together using bit math to form the higher plane code point that would not normally fit in a u16. The following table illustrates this visually.

Code Block                        Binary
--------------  -------------     -----------------
High Surrogate      Min Range     11011000_00000000
High Surrogate      Max Range     11011011_11111111
High Surrogate  "Leading tag"     110110___________
High Surrogate  Encoded Value     ______11_11111111

Low Surrogate       Min Range     11011100_00000000
Low Surrogate       Max Range     11011111_11111111
Low Surrogate   "Leading tag"     110111___________
Low Surrogate   Encoded Value     ______11_11111111
U+D83D  High Surrogate     11011000_00111101   "👍"[0]
U+D83D  "Leading tag"      110110              "👍"[0]
U+D83D  Encoded value            00_00111101   "👍"[0]

U+DC4D  Low Surrogate      11011100_01001101   "👍"[1]
U+DC4D  "Leading tag"      110111              "👍"[1]
U+DC4D  Encoded value            00_01001101   "👍"[1]

0000_111101              The high surrogate "encoded value".
           00_01001101   Combined with the low surrogate "encoded value".
   1_00000000_00000000   Magically add 0x10000.
   1_11110100_01001101   Matches the 👍 code point.

To verify this we can write some code in the web console to do this operation. Feel free to skip this example if you haven’t done bit fiddling operations before.

function combineSurrogates(high, low) {
  // Validate the high surrogate.
  if ((high >> 10) !== 0b110110) {
    throw new Error("Not a high surrogate.");

  // Validate the low surrogate.
  if ((low >> 10) !== 0b110111) {
    throw new Error("Not a low surrogate.");

  // Remove the "leading tag" to only keep the value.
  const highValue = high & 0b11_11111111;
  const lowValue  = low  & 0b11_11111111;
  const magicAdd  = 0b1_00000000_00000000;

  // Combine the high and low values together using bit operations.
  const codePoint = (highValue << 10) | lowValue + magicAdd;

  // Transform the code point into a string.
  return String.fromCodePoint(codePoint);

combineSurrogates(0xd83d, 0xdc4d);
// "👍"

We can also do the reverse of turning a code point into a high and low surrogate pair.

function toSurrogatePair(codePoint) {
  if (codePoint < 0x1_0000) {
    throw new Error("Code point is in the basic multilingual plane.");

  // Reverse the magical add of 0b1_00000000_00000000 from the code point.
  const magicAdd  = 0x1_0000;
  const transformed = codePoint - magicAdd;

  // Compute the high and low values.
  const highValue = transformed >> 10;
  const lowValue  = transformed & 0b11_11111111;

  // Generate the tag portion of the surrogates.
  const highTag = 0b110110 << 10;
  const lowTag  = 0b110111 << 10;

  // Combine the tags and the values.
  const highSurrogate = highTag | highValue;
  const lowSurrogate  = lowTag  | lowValue;

  return [highSurrogate, lowSurrogate];

// [ 0xd83d, 0xdc4d ]

Poking more at JavaScript’s UTF-16

Looking into more of how JavaScript encodes the values, you can see other interesting patterns. First let’s build a function that will output a nicely formatted text table of the UTF-16 encoded values.

function getCodeUnitsTable(utf16string) {
  // Use console.table to display the results.
  let results = `
Code    Binary               Letter
------  -------------------  ------

  for (let i = 0; i < utf16string.length; i++) {
    // Use the String.prototype.codePointAt method to inspect the underlying code unit.
    // https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Reference/Global_Objects/String/codePointAt
    // Aside: codePointAt is slightly smart with surrogate pairs, but here using the
    // utf16string[i].codePointAt(0) pattern will give us the code unit rather than
    // code point.
    const letter   = utf16string[i];
    const codeUnit = letter.codePointAt(0);
    let binary     = codeUnit.toString(2).padStart(16, '0');
    binary         = "0b" + binary.slice(0, 8) + '_' + binary.slice(8)
    const hex      = "0x" + codeUnit.toString(16).padStart(4,  '0');

    results += `${hex}  ${binary}  ${letter}\n`;

  return results;

Now we can inspect some strings. First off is a Latin1 string.

getCodeUnitsTable("¡Hola! ¿Qué tal?");
Code    Binary               Letter
------  -------------------  ------
0x00a1  0b00000000_10100001  ¡
0x0048  0b00000000_01001000  H
0x006f  0b00000000_01101111  o
0x006c  0b00000000_01101100  l
0x0061  0b00000000_01100001  a
0x0021  0b00000000_00100001  !
0x0020  0b00000000_00100000
0x00bf  0b00000000_10111111  ¿
0x0051  0b00000000_01010001  Q
0x0075  0b00000000_01110101  u
0x00e9  0b00000000_11101001  é
0x0020  0b00000000_00100000
0x0074  0b00000000_01110100  t
0x0061  0b00000000_01100001  a
0x006c  0b00000000_01101100  l
0x003f  0b00000000_00111111  ?

From here we can see that the high byte for the entire string is still just 0. If we ignore the high byte, and only use the low byte values, this would be a valid Latin1 ISO/IEC 8859-1 string. In fact, this is an optimization that JavaScript engines already do, since they are required to operate with UTF-16 strings. Inspecting SpiderMonkey’s source shows frequent mentions of Latin1 encoded strings. This creates some additional complexity, but can cut the string storage size in half for web apps that use Latin1 strings. This would change the encoding from using a u16 to a u8 for these special strings.

Of course, the internet is a global resource, so much of the content is not Latin1 encoded. Repeating the example of “My Neighbor Totoro” text from above, you can see that a JavaScript engine would need to use the full u16. These characters are still in the basic multilingual plane.

Code    Binary              Letter
------  ------------------  ------
0x3068  0b0011000001101000  と
0x306a  0b0011000001101010  な
0x308a  0b0011000010001010  り
0x306e  0b0011000001101110  の
0x30c8  0b0011000011001000  ト
0x30c8  0b0011000011001000  ト
0x30ed  0b0011000011101101  ロ

However, going beyond to the supplementary multilingual plane. Let’s look at some Egyption hieroglyphs using our function above.


Running this code now creates a tricky situation. I can’t directly paste the results into my editor window. This happens because the text has surrogate pairs. When we try to create the text output using getCodeUnitsTable above, this generates _invalid code units__. A high surrogate must have a matching low surrogate, or programs get angry (or at least they should do something to handle it). The fact that untrusted code units can be malformed UTF-16 is a great way to introduce bugs into a system. Because of this, you shouldn’t naively take in UTF-16 input without validating its encoding. Browsers do a lot here to protect users from these encoding issues.

Here is the slightly amended table that my editor will actually let me paste into in this document.

Code    Binary               Letter  Surrogate
------  -------------------  ------  ---------
0xd80c  0b11011000_00001100  \ud80c  High
0xdcd3  0b11011100_11010011  \udcd3  Low
0xd80c  0b11011000_00001100  \ud80c  High
0xdda1  0b11011101_10100001  \udda1  Low
0xd80c  0b11011000_00001100  \ud80c  High
0xdda3  0b11011101_10100011  \udda3  Low
0xd80c  0b11011000_00001100  \ud80c  High
0xdc80  0b11011100_10000000  \udcb0  Low
0xd80c  0b11011000_00001100  \ud80c  High
0xdd60  0b11011101_01100000  \udd60  Low

In order to inspect the actual code points in UTF-16 encoded JavaScript, we need to build a separate utility that knows the difference between code units, and code points. It needs to properly handle surrogate pairs.

function getCodePointsTable(string) {
    let results = `
Code Point  Surrogates  Letter
----------  ----------  ------
  // Loop through the code units.
  for (let i = 0; i < string.length; i++) {
    // The codePointAt function will correctly read the high and low surrogate to get
    // the code point, and not the code unit. However, the index used is still the code
    // unit index, not the code point index.
    const value = string.codePointAt(i);

    // Format the code point nicely.
    let codePoint = value.toString(16).padStart(6, '0');
    codePoint = 'U+' + codePoint.slice(0, 2) + '_' + codePoint.slice(2);

    let letter;
    let surrogate;

    if (value < 0x10000) {
      // This is not a surrogate pair. It's a code point that is in the basic
      // multilingual plane.
      surrogate = 'No '
      letter = string[i];
    } else {
      // This code point is in a higher plane and involves a surrogate pair.
      surrogate = 'Yes'
      // We can't run `string[i]` as it would only get the high surrogate. Instead, slice
      // out the entire codepoint.
      letter = string.slice(i, i + 2);
      // Skip the low surrogate. This is where UTF-16 is a _variable length encoding_.

    results += `${codePoint}   ${surrogate}         ${letter}\n`

  return results;

Now run this with some of the glyphs from above, but include some Latin1 characters as well.

getCodePointsTable("Glyphs: 𓃓𓆡𓆣𓂀𓅠");
Code Point  Surrogates  Letter
----------  ----------  ------
U+00_0047   No          G
U+00_006c   No          l
U+00_0079   No          y
U+00_0070   No          p
U+00_0068   No          h
U+00_0073   No          s
U+00_003a   No          :
U+00_0020   No           
U+01_30d3   Yes         𓃓
U+01_31a1   Yes         𓆡
U+01_31a3   Yes         𓆣
U+01_3080   Yes         𓂀
U+01_3160   Yes         𓅠

Now we can see what happens when characters are used outside of the basic multilingual plane, and the extra care that is needed to process and work with this text. This might seem overly complex for building a typical web app, but bugs will come up if a developer tries to do text processing naively. It’s possible to break the encoding and have improperly encoded UTF-16.

In fact. Let’s do that.

Broken Surrogate Pairs

I posted a tweet with a broken surrogate pair on Twitter. It turns out that Twitter did the right thing and stripped it out. However, I tried to do it again with a reply and putting an unmatched low surrogate mid-tweet. The second time the input visually notified me of my breakage, and would not let me send the tweet.

The browser is permissive in what it will display, and will show a glyph with the surrogate pair’s value when encountering an unmatched surrogate pair. This is because the DOMString is not technically UTF-16. It’s typically interpreted as UTF-16.

From MDN:

DOMString is a sequence of 16-bit unsigned integers, typically interpreted as UTF-16 code units.

Building a web page is a messy process. Servers and developers make mistakes all of the time. Having a hard error when an encoding issue in UTF-16 comes up is against the principles of displaying a webpage.

You can try this yourself:

var brokenString = "👍"[1] + "👍"[0];
var p = document.createElement("p");
p.innerText = brokenString;

Firefox, Safari, and Chrome each handle the surrogates a little bit differently. Firefox shows a glyph representing the hex value, Chrome shows the “replacement character”: (� U+FFFD), while Safari shows nothing at all. The DOMString on all three are still the broken UTF-16.

There are also other standards for UTF-16 that can deal with the realities of messy encodings. One such is a USVString which replaces the broken surrogates with the “replacement character”: (� U+FFFD). This turns the string into one that is then safe to process. Similarly there is WTF-8, or “Wobbly Text Format – 8-bit” which allows for encoding surrogate pairs into UTF-8.

One last thing

// 4

At this point we’ve seen that the normal thumbs up emoji is made up of two code units. However, why is this single character 4?

Code    Binary               Letter
------  -------------------  ------
0xd83d  0b11011000_00111101  \ud83d
0xdc4d  0b11011100_01001101  \udc4d
0xd83c  0b11011000_00111100  \ud83c
0xdffd  0b11011111_11111101  \udffd

Looking at the code units, we can see that it’s made up of two pairs of surrogates.

Code Point  Surrogates  Letter
----------  ----------  ------
U+01_f44d   Yes         👍
U+01_f3fd   Yes         🏽

This last thumbs up example is a tease to show that there is more going on with how code points interact with each other.

What’s next?

So far we’ve covered imaginary text encodings, code points, the indexable UTF-32 encoding, and the slightly variable length UTF-16 encoding. There’s still plenty to cover with grapheme clusters, diacritical marks, and the oh so variable UTF-8 encoding. Stay tuned for the next part in this series.

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