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perluniintro - Perl Unicode introduction


This document gives a general idea of Unicode and how to use Unicode in Perl.


Unicode is a character set standard which plans to codify all of the writing systems of the world, plus many other symbols.

Unicode and ISO/IEC 10646 are coordinated standards that provide code points for characters in almost all modern character set standards, covering more than 30 writing systems and hundreds of languages, including all commercially-important modern languages. All characters in the largest Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dictionaries are also encoded. The standards will eventually cover almost all characters in more than 250 writing systems and thousands of languages. Unicode 1.0 was released in October 1991, and 5.0 in October 2006.

A Unicode character is an abstract entity. It is not bound to any particular integer width, especially not to the C language char. Unicode is language-neutral and display-neutral: it does not encode the language of the text and it does not define fonts or other graphical layout details. Unicode operates on characters and on text built from those characters.

Unicode defines characters like LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A or GREEK SMALL LETTER ALPHA and unique numbers for the characters, in this case 0x0041 and 0x03B1, respectively. These unique numbers are called code points.

The Unicode standard prefers using hexadecimal notation for the code points. If numbers like 0x0041 are unfamiliar to you, take a peek at a later section, "Hexadecimal Notation". The Unicode standard uses the notation U+0041 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A, to give the hexadecimal code point and the normative name of the character.

Unicode also defines various properties for the characters, like "uppercase" or "lowercase", "decimal digit", or "punctuation"; these properties are independent of the names of the characters. Furthermore, various operations on the characters like uppercasing, lowercasing, and collating (sorting) are defined.

A Unicode character consists either of a single code point, or a base character (like LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A), followed by one or more modifiers (like COMBINING ACUTE ACCENT). This sequence of base character and modifiers is called a combining character sequence.

Whether to call these combining character sequences "characters" depends on your point of view. If you are a programmer, you probably would tend towards seeing each element in the sequences as one unit, or "character". The whole sequence could be seen as one "character", however, from the user's point of view, since that's probably what it looks like in the context of the user's language.

With this "whole sequence" view of characters, the total number of characters is open-ended. But in the programmer's "one unit is one character" point of view, the concept of "characters" is more deterministic. In this document, we take that second point of view: one "character" is one Unicode code point, be it a base character or a combining character.

For some combinations, there are precomposed characters. LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A WITH ACUTE, for example, is defined as a single code point. These precomposed characters are, however, only available for some combinations, and are mainly meant to support round-trip conversions between Unicode and legacy standards (like the ISO 8859). In the general case, the composing method is more extensible. To support conversion between different compositions of the characters, various normalization forms to standardize representations are also defined.

Because of backward compatibility with legacy encodings, the "a unique number for every character" idea breaks down a bit: instead, there is "at least one number for every character". The same character could be represented differently in several legacy encodings. The converse is also not true: some code points do not have an assigned character. Firstly, there are unallocated code points within otherwise used blocks. Secondly, there are special Unicode control characters that do not represent true characters.

A common myth about Unicode is that it would be "16-bit", that is, Unicode is only represented as 0x10000 (or 65536) characters from 0x0000 to 0xFFFF. This is untrue. Since Unicode 2.0 (July 1996), Unicode has been defined all the way up to 21 bits (0x10FFFF), and since Unicode 3.1 (March 2001), characters have been defined beyond 0xFFFF. The first 0x10000 characters are called the Plane 0, or the Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP). With Unicode 3.1, 17 (yes, seventeen) planes in all were defined--but they are nowhere near full of defined characters, yet.

Another myth is that the 256-character blocks have something to do with languages--that each block would define the characters used by a language or a set of languages. This is also untrue. The division into blocks exists, but it is almost completely accidental--an artifact of how the characters have been and still are allocated. Instead, there is a concept called scripts, which is more useful: there is Latin script, Greek script, and so on. Scripts usually span varied parts of several blocks. For further information see Unicode::UCD.

The Unicode code points are just abstract numbers. To input and output these abstract numbers, the numbers must be encoded or serialised somehow. Unicode defines several character encoding forms, of which UTF-8 is perhaps the most popular. UTF-8 is a variable length encoding that encodes Unicode characters as 1 to 6 bytes (only 4 with the currently defined characters). Other encodings include UTF-16 and UTF-32 and their big- and little-endian variants (UTF-8 is byte-order independent) The ISO/IEC 10646 defines the UCS-2 and UCS-4 encoding forms.

For more information about encodings--for instance, to learn what surrogates and byte order marks (BOMs) are--see perlunicode.

Characters represented by Code points represented by Bytes

According to the Unicode Standard: "Characters are the abstract representations of the smallest components of written language that have semantic value." The Unicode meaning of character is often not the meaning used by Perl. Characters used to be represented by bytes, for example the C type char is a byte, or in Perl 5 the function chr, always returned a byte for values below 256. The Unicode definition of character is also not the idea of character that most people have.

Code points are numeric values representing Unicode characters. Because this is normally the only represented, and the term is less ambiguous then characters, this is the preferred term.

Perl kurila uses the UTF-8 (or UTF-EBCDIC) encoding to store code points in bytes or 8-bit code units using Unicode terms. Multiple bytes may be needed to store a single code point.

Byte and Code points Semantics

Perl kurila uses the lexical scope to determine whether to use byte semantics or code point semantics. The bytes pragma forces byte semantics, the utf8 pragma forces code points semantics. For compatibility reasons the default behaviour is byte semantics, but this might change.

The bytes pragma will always, regardless of platform, force byte semantics in a particular lexical scope. See bytes.

The utf8 pragma will force code points semantics in a particular lexical scope. See utf8. The utf8 pragma also set that the input of the parser is UTF-8. The pragma to force code points semantics might be changed to codepoints.

Under code points semantics, many operations that formerly operated on bytes now operate on code points. A code point in Perl is logically just a number ranging from 0 to 2**31 or so. Larger code points may encode into longer sequences of bytes internally, but this internal detail is mostly hidden for Perl code.

Unicode and EBCDIC

Perl 5.8.0 also supports Unicode on EBCDIC platforms. There, Unicode support is somewhat more complex to implement since additional conversions are needed at every step. Some problems remain, see perlebcdic for details.

In any case, the Unicode support on EBCDIC platforms is better than in the 5.6 series, which didn't work much at all for EBCDIC platform. On EBCDIC platforms, the internal Unicode encoding form is UTF-EBCDIC instead of UTF-8. The difference is that as UTF-8 is "ASCII-safe" in that ASCII characters encode to UTF-8 as-is, while UTF-EBCDIC is "EBCDIC-safe".

Perl's Unicode Support History

Starting from Perl 5.6.0, Perl has had the capacity to handle Unicode natively. Perl 5.8.0, however, is the first recommended release for serious Unicode work. The maintenance release 5.6.1 fixed many of the problems of the initial Unicode implementation, but for example regular expressions still do not work with Unicode in 5.6.1.

In Perl 5.6.x releases the utf8 pragma was used to declare that operations in the current block or file would be Unicode-aware. In Perl 5.8.x the "Unicodeness" is carried with the data, instead of being attached to the operations. Only one case remained where an explicit use utf8 was needed: if your Perl script itself is encoded in UTF-8, you can use UTF-8 in your identifier names, and in string and regular expression literals, by saying use utf8.

Perl kurila restores the meaning of the utf8 pragma as to mean Unicode-aware. And might change the default to Unicode-aware.

Creating Unicode

To create Unicode characters in literals for code points above 0xFF, use the \x{...} notation in double-quoted strings:

    my $smiley = "\x{263a}";

Similarly, it can be used in regular expression literals

    $smiley =~ /\x{263a}/;

At run-time you can use chr():

    my $hebrew_alef = chr(0x05d0);

See "Further Resources" for how to find all these numeric codes.

Naturally, ord() will do the reverse: it turns a character into a code point.

Note that \x.. (no {} and only two hexadecimal digits), \x{...}, and chr(...) for arguments less than 0x100 (decimal 256) generate an eight-bit character for backward compatibility with older Perls. For arguments of 0x100 or more, Unicode characters are always produced. If you want to force the production of Unicode characters regardless of the numeric value, use pack("U", ...) instead of \x.., \x{...}, or chr().

You can also use the charnames pragma to invoke characters by name in double-quoted strings:

    use charnames ':full';
    my $arabic_alef = "\N{ARABIC LETTER ALEF}";

And, as mentioned above, you can also pack() numbers into Unicode characters:

   my $georgian_an  = pack("U", 0x10a0);

Note that both \x{...} and \N{...} are compile-time string constants: you cannot use variables in them. if you want similar run-time functionality, use chr() and charnames::vianame().

If you want to force the result to Unicode characters, use the special "U0" prefix. It consumes no arguments but causes the following bytes to be interpreted as the UTF-8 encoding of Unicode characters:

   my $chars = pack("U0W*", 0x80, 0x42);

Likewise, you can stop such UTF-8 interpretation by using the special "C0" prefix.

Handling Unicode

Handling Unicode is for the most part transparent: just use the strings as usual. Functions like index(), length(), and substr() will work on the Unicode characters; regular expressions will work on the Unicode characters (see perlunicode and perlretut).

Note that Perl considers combining character sequences to be separate characters, so for example

    use charnames ':full';

will print 2, not 1. The only exception is that regular expressions have \X for matching a combining character sequence.

Life is not quite so transparent, however, when working with legacy encodings, I/O, and certain special cases:

Legacy Encodings

When you combine legacy data and Unicode the legacy data needs to be upgraded to Unicode. Normally ISO 8859-1 (or EBCDIC, if applicable) is assumed.

The Encode module knows about many encodings and has interfaces for doing conversions between those encodings:

    use Encode 'decode';
    $data = decode("iso-8859-3", $data); # convert from legacy to utf-8

Unicode I/O

Normally, writing out Unicode data

    print FH $some_string_with_unicode, "\n";

produces raw bytes that Perl happens to use to internally encode the Unicode string. Perl's internal encoding depends on the system as well as what characters happen to be in the string at the time. If any of the characters are at code points 0x100 or above, you will get a warning. To ensure that the output is explicitly rendered in the encoding you desire--and to avoid the warning--open the stream with the desired encoding. Some examples:

    open FH, ">:utf8", "file";

    open FH, ">:encoding(ucs2)",      "file";
    open FH, ">:encoding(UTF-8)",     "file";
    open FH, ">:encoding(shift_jis)", "file";

and on already open streams, use binmode():

    binmode(STDOUT, ":utf8");

    binmode(STDOUT, ":encoding(ucs2)");
    binmode(STDOUT, ":encoding(UTF-8)");
    binmode(STDOUT, ":encoding(shift_jis)");

The matching of encoding names is loose: case does not matter, and many encodings have several aliases. Note that the :utf8 layer must always be specified exactly like that; it is not subject to the loose matching of encoding names. Also note that :utf8 is unsafe for input, because it accepts the data without validating that it is indeed valid UTF8.

See PerlIO for the :utf8 layer, PerlIO::encoding and Encode::PerlIO for the :encoding() layer, and Encode::Supported for many encodings supported by the Encode module.

Reading in a file that you know happens to be encoded in one of the Unicode or legacy encodings does not magically turn the data into Unicode in Perl's eyes. To do that, specify the appropriate layer when opening files

    open(my $fh,'<:encoding(utf8)', 'anything');
    my $line_of_unicode = <$fh>;

    open(my $fh,'<:encoding(Big5)', 'anything');
    my $line_of_unicode = <$fh>;

The I/O layers can also be specified more flexibly with the open pragma. See open, or look at the following example.

    use open ':encoding(utf8)'; # input/output default encoding will be UTF-8
    open X, ">file";
    print X chr(0x100), "\n";
    close X;
    open Y, "<file";
    printf "%#x\n", ord(<Y>); # this should print 0x100
    close Y;

With the open pragma you can use the :locale layer

    BEGIN { $ENV{LC_ALL} = $ENV{LANG} = 'ru_RU.KOI8-R' }
    # the :locale will probe the locale environment variables like LC_ALL
    use open OUT => ':locale'; # russki parusski
    open(O, ">koi8");
    print O chr(0x430); # Unicode CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER A = KOI8-R 0xc1
    close O;
    open(I, "<koi8");
    printf "%#x\n", ord(<I>), "\n"; # this should print 0xc1
    close I;

These methods install a transparent filter on the I/O stream that converts data from the specified encoding when it is read in from the stream. The result is always Unicode.

The open pragma affects all the open() calls after the pragma by setting default layers. If you want to affect only certain streams, use explicit layers directly in the open() call.

You can switch encodings on an already opened stream by using binmode(); see "binmode" in perlfunc.

The :locale does not currently (as of Perl 5.8.0) work with open() and binmode(), only with the open pragma. The :utf8 and :encoding(...) methods do work with all of open(), binmode(), and the open pragma.

Similarly, you may use these I/O layers on output streams to automatically convert Unicode to the specified encoding when it is written to the stream. For example, the following snippet copies the contents of the file "text.jis" (encoded as ISO-2022-JP, aka JIS) to the file "text.utf8", encoded as UTF-8:

    open(my $nihongo, '<:encoding(iso-2022-jp)', 'text.jis');
    open(my $unicode, '>:utf8',                  'text.utf8');
    while (<$nihongo>) { print $unicode $_ }

The naming of encodings, both by the open() and by the open pragma allows for flexible names: koi8-r and KOI8R will both be understood.

Common encodings recognized by ISO, MIME, IANA, and various other standardisation organisations are recognised; for a more detailed list see Encode::Supported.

read() reads characters and returns the number of characters. seek() and tell() operate on byte counts, as do sysread() and sysseek().

Notice that because of the default behaviour of not doing any conversion upon input if there is no default layer, it is easy to mistakenly write code that keeps on expanding a file by repeatedly encoding the data:

    open F, "file";
    local $/; ## read in the whole file of 8-bit characters
    $t = <F>;
    close F;
    open F, ">:encoding(utf8)", "file";
    print F $t; ## convert to UTF-8 on output
    close F;

If you run this code twice, the contents of the file will be twice UTF-8 encoded. A use open ':encoding(utf8)' would have avoided the bug, or explicitly opening also the file for input as UTF-8.

NOTE: the :utf8 and :encoding features work only if your Perl has been built with the new PerlIO feature (which is the default on most systems).

Displaying Unicode As Text

Sometimes you might want to display Perl scalars containing Unicode as simple ASCII (or EBCDIC) text. The following subroutine converts its argument so that Unicode characters with code points greater than 255 are displayed as \x{...}, control characters (like \n) are displayed as \x.., and the rest of the characters as themselves:

   sub nice_string {
         map { $_ > 255 ?                  # if wide character...
               sprintf("\\x{%04X}", $_) :  # \x{...}
               chr($_) =~ /[[:cntrl:]]/ ?  # else if control character ...
               sprintf("\\x%02X", $_) :    # \x..
               quotemeta(chr($_))          # else quoted or as themselves
         } unpack("W*", $_[0]));           # unpack Unicode characters

For example,


returns the string


which is ready to be printed.

Special Cases

Advanced Topics


Questions With Answers

Hexadecimal Notation

The Unicode standard prefers using hexadecimal notation because that more clearly shows the division of Unicode into blocks of 256 characters. Hexadecimal is also simply shorter than decimal. You can use decimal notation, too, but learning to use hexadecimal just makes life easier with the Unicode standard. The U+HHHH notation uses hexadecimal, for example.

The 0x prefix means a hexadecimal number, the digits are 0-9 and a-f (or A-F, case doesn't matter). Each hexadecimal digit represents four bits, or half a byte. print 0x..., "\n" will show a hexadecimal number in decimal, and printf "%x\n", $decimal will show a decimal number in hexadecimal. If you have just the "hex digits" of a hexadecimal number, you can use the hex() function.

    print 0x0009, "\n";    # 9
    print 0x000a, "\n";    # 10
    print 0x000f, "\n";    # 15
    print 0x0010, "\n";    # 16
    print 0x0011, "\n";    # 17
    print 0x0100, "\n";    # 256

    print 0x0041, "\n";    # 65

    printf "%x\n",  65;    # 41
    printf "%#x\n", 65;    # 0x41

    print hex("41"), "\n"; # 65

Further Resources


Thanks to the kind readers of the,,, and mailing lists for their valuable feedback.


Copyright 2001-2002 Jarkko Hietaniemi <>

This document may be distributed under the same terms as Perl itself.

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