Fonts and keyboards
general information

 Philip Tagg

    Generate Chinese chars

Fonts and keyboards: the basics

Your computer system can theoretically produce a vast array of characters and symbols (Unicode UTF-8 standard, most likely) but the standard computer keyboard has only 48 keys. They can do no more than cover the 48×2=96 different characters just listed in yellow (with minor variations depending on where you bought your computer). So, if you want to avoid offending the Åströms by calling them Astrom, or if you want to avoid using foul French like lecon when you mean a perfectly decent leçon, you need to know how to produce the letters Å and Ç. If you write about music you'll also need to generate the shape of sharps, flats, naturals and short snippets of notated rhythm at your computer keyboard. You might also want to write "Dvořák" properly, or explain the Greek origins of a "polyphony" (πολύ and φωνή) or quote something in Russian, Chinese or Arabic.

There are three main ways of using your computer keyboard to produce all these sorts of symbols and characters: by changing keyboard layout and/or by changing fonts.

1. Keyboards

Your keyboard can be mapped so that existing keys can produce any character with a code number in the UNICODE set. The AltGr key can be used to access those values (ç, š, ö, â, ñ, etc.) as can dead-key combinations (e.g. ` directly followed by e to produce è). This potential is at the base of the such keyboard layouts as [1] Tagg's 2010 multilingual keyboard; [2] a 'Pan-Hellenic' keyboard covering both Modern and Ancient Greek characters; [3] a Russian keyboard with keys set so that typing "Vladimir Putin" produces Владимир Путин (if that is what you want!).

2. Fonts

2. Many fonts provide tables interpreting codes from the keyboard in ways that do not just provide aesthetic variants of the same letter. For example, in my XPTmusic1 font, typing lower-case H (h) produces a minim (Halfnote) and upper-case H (H) a minim rest, dollar ($) a flat sign () etc.

In short, alternative keyboard layouts and extra fonts are the least time-consuming ways in which you can produce a satisfactory range of characters and symbols in the texts you write on your computer. Otherwise you will find yourself repeatedly having to drag special symbols down from confusing tables.

Generating Chinese Characters


Also useful is a rudimentary understanding of:

  • pīnyīn: the Mandarin-based (not Cantonese) roman-letter transcription of Chinese characters
  • the notion of tonal language (that the same syllable can mean different things if intoned differently)


  • The characters produced are modern/simplified, as used in China,
    not the traditional characters used in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
  • If you are quite familiar with Chinese, you may find it quicker to use the site Typing Chinese Online.

Generating the Chinese character for good.

  1. If you don't know the Chinese for good go to the online dictionary
  2. Enter good and press Search
  3. Choose the most appropriate word displayed in English in the right-hand column. Hăo () is best, I think.
  4. Click the Chinese character equivalent to hăo — and check the possible meanings displayed.
  5. If (hăo) is what you mean by good, select the character (double click) and copy it (Cntrl-C in Windows). Note that it is an actual character, not an image file.
  6. Paste (Cntrl-V in Windows) the character into your document. If turns out as a rectangle or a question mark it's probably because the font at that point in the text doesn't cater for Chinese characters. If so, select that part of the text and change to a full Unicode font (e.g. Arial Unicode MS).
  7. The characters generated using this method are very large (75 pt). You'll may well want to reduce that to something like 11 or 12.

If you're having trouble with the simple method just described, try replacing step 6 with the following procedure:

  • Open the Typing Chinese Online site in a separate window
  • Paste the character into the box provided
  • Deselect the character in the box, then reselect it as it now appears (much smaller).
    N.B. You must copy the version shown, not what you just copied into the box.
  • Press Copy, switch to word processing and paste the character into your text document.


(Philip Tagg)