Unicode, utf-8, strings and emojis

5 min read

unicode utf8 strings emojis utf8splain uni package R

Iโ€™ve been somewhat obsessing about emojis lately, it all started when I wanted to check which emojis were used on twitter during useR this year.

But this post is not really about emojis, because my emojitsu package is not ready yet, but hereโ€™s a preview anyway.

So Iโ€™ll blog specifically about emojis later, but this has led me to digress down the ๐Ÿ‡ hole, because emojis are made of unicode runes typically encoded into utf-8 strings. Most of the concepts in that last sentence were quite mysterious to me not so long ago, and I believe we should collectively know more about unicode and utf-8. I learned some of the basics from the Strings, bytes, runes and characters in Go post in the go blog, and The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!).

Typically when I want to understand something, I make an R ๐Ÿ“ฆ. For example a few years ago I wanted to understand C++. I guess I really want to understand this, as I am making not 1, not 2 but 3 ๐Ÿ“ฆ (if I count emojitsu).

  • uni : contains a tibble of unicode runes
  • utf8splain : to get to the 0 and 1 of utf-8 string encoding
  • emojitsu : grammar of emoji, or at least programmatic manipulation of them.

The ๐ŸŒ has changed now, and strings can no longer be considered as mere sequences of single characters (bytes). The uni::code tibble contains the 82719 unicode runes (aka code points). btw, the generation of the uni::code tibble contains some interesting tidyverse ๐Ÿคธ, perhaps Iโ€™ll โœ๏ธ another post about that, but letโ€™s not digress more yet.

## # A tibble: 82,719 x 7
##       id   rune                                              description
##    <int>  <chr>                                                    <chr>
##  1     0 U+0000                                               Null : NUL
##  2     1 U+0001                                   Start of Heading : SOH
##  3     2 U+0002                                      Start of Text : STX
##  4     3 U+0003                                        End of Text : ETX
##  5     4 U+0004                                End of Transmission : EOT
##  6     5 U+0005                                            Enquiry : ENQ
##  7     6 U+0006                                        Acknowledge : ASK
##  8     7 U+0007                                               Bell : BEL
##  9     8 U+0008                                           Backspace : BS
## 10     9 U+0009  Horizontal Tabulation : ht : character tabulation : TAB
## # ... with 82,709 more rows, and 4 more variables: block <chr>,
## #   countries <chr>, languages <chr>, type <chr>

So as of now, unicode has 82719 runes, thatโ€™s way more than the 256 that can fit into a single byte (8 bits), however we still want to be able to process text from back in the days when strings were in fact arrays of single bytes.

Unicode is just a giant map of characters, that covers all languages, emojis and other things I donโ€™t know about, currently ranging between U+0000 and U+E01EF.

uni::code %>%
  slice( c(1, n()) )
## # A tibble: 2 x 7
##       id    rune             description                          block
##    <int>   <chr>                   <chr>                          <chr>
## 1      0  U+0000              Null : NUL              control-character
## 2 917999 U+E01EF  VARIATION SELECTOR-256 variation-selectors-supplement
## # ... with 3 more variables: countries <chr>, languages <chr>, type <chr>

Each rune is just a number, and the job of utf-8 is to encode that number (i.e.ย its bits) into a sequence of bytes. To do this, utf-8 uses a variable number of bytes.

For each rune: - If the first byte starts with a 0 bit, the rune only needs one byte, and uses the remaining 7 bits. Otherwise the number of leading 1 in the first byte indicate the number of bytes that the rune need. - The following bytes all start with โ€œ10โ€ - All the bits that are not used by this system are used to store the binary representation of the rune.

It sounds like a lot of words, so the utf8splain::runes function is here to help you.

runes( "hello ๐ŸŒ")
## utf-8 encoded string with 7 runes
## U+0068             68                              01101000    Latin Small Letter H     
## U+0065             65                              01100101    Latin Small Letter E     
## U+006C             6C                              01101100    Latin Small Letter L     
## U+006C             6C                              01101100    Latin Small Letter L     
## U+006F             6F                              01101111    Latin Small Letter O     
## U+0020             20                              00100000    Space                    
## U+1F30D   F0 9F 8C 8D   11110000 10011111 10001100 10001101    Earth Globe Europe-Africa

โ€ฆ and if you use a crayon ๐Ÿ– compatible console, like a recent enough (maybe a daily build) of rstudio, you even get colour:

The first 6 characters are just ascii โ€œhโ€, โ€œeโ€, โ€œlโ€, โ€œlโ€, โ€œoโ€ and " โ€œ. They only need 7 bits, so they can be utf-8 encoded using just one byte.

The 7th rune ๐ŸŒ is the rune โ€œU+1F30Dโ€, i.e.ย binary encoded as:

world_decimal <- strtoi( "0x1F30D", base = 16)
## [1] 127757
world_binary    <- paste( substr(as.character( rev(intToBits(world_decimal)) ), 2, 2 ), collapse = "" )
## [1] "00000000000000011111001100001101"
world_binary_signif <- sub( "^0+", "", world_binary )
## [1] "11111001100001101"
## [1] 17

It needs 17 bits, in terms of utf-8 it means it needs 4 bytes (in red). These 4 bytes contain the utf-8 machinery (the light gray bits) and the actual binary bits for the rune (in black). To go full โญ•๏ธ the runes function extracts the description of each rune with a left_join with the uni::code tibble .

Next time weโ€™ll see that some emojis actually use several runes, but until then I need to finish the emojitsu.