4.8.2 Encodings and Unicode

Unicode strings are stored internally as sequences of codepoints (to be precise as Py_UNICODE arrays). Depending on the way Python is compiled (either via --enable-unicode=ucs2 or --enable-unicode=ucs4, with the former being the default) Py_UNICODE is either a 16-bit or 32-bit data type. Once a Unicode object is used outside of CPU and memory, CPU endianness and how these arrays are stored as bytes become an issue. Transforming a unicode object into a sequence of bytes is called encoding and recreating the unicode object from the sequence of bytes is known as decoding. There are many different methods for how this transformation can be done (these methods are also called encodings). The simplest method is to map the codepoints 0-255 to the bytes 0x0-0xff. This means that a unicode object that contains codepoints above U+00FF can't be encoded with this method (which is called 'latin-1' or 'iso-8859-1'). unicode.encode() will raise a UnicodeEncodeError that looks like this: "UnicodeEncodeError: 'latin-1' codec can't encode character u'\u1234' in position 3: ordinal not in range(256)".

There's another group of encodings (the so called charmap encodings) that choose a different subset of all unicode code points and how these codepoints are mapped to the bytes 0x0-0xff. To see how this is done simply open e.g. encodings/cp1252.py (which is an encoding that is used primarily on Windows). There's a string constant with 256 characters that shows you which character is mapped to which byte value.

All of these encodings can only encode 256 of the 65536 (or 1114111) codepoints defined in unicode. A simple and straightforward way that can store each Unicode code point, is to store each codepoint as two consecutive bytes. There are two possibilities: Store the bytes in big endian or in little endian order. These two encodings are called UTF-16-BE and UTF-16-LE respectively. Their disadvantage is that if e.g. you use UTF-16-BE on a little endian machine you will always have to swap bytes on encoding and decoding. UTF-16 avoids this problem: Bytes will always be in natural endianness. When these bytes are read by a CPU with a different endianness, then bytes have to be swapped though. To be able to detect the endianness of a UTF-16 byte sequence, there's the so called BOM (the "Byte Order Mark"). This is the Unicode character U+FEFF. This character will be prepended to every UTF-16 byte sequence. The byte swapped version of this character (0xFFFE) is an illegal character that may not appear in a Unicode text. So when the first character in an UTF-16 byte sequence appears to be a U+FFFE the bytes have to be swapped on decoding. Unfortunately upto Unicode 4.0 the character U+FEFF had a second purpose as a "ZERO WIDTH NO-BREAK SPACE": A character that has no width and doesn't allow a word to be split. It can e.g. be used to give hints to a ligature algorithm. With Unicode 4.0 using U+FEFF as a "ZERO WIDTH NO-BREAK SPACE" has been deprecated (with U+2060 ("WORD JOINER") assuming this role). Nevertheless Unicode software still must be able to handle U+FEFF in both roles: As a BOM it's a device to determine the storage layout of the encoded bytes, and vanishes once the byte sequence has been decoded into a Unicode string; as a "ZERO WIDTH NO-BREAK SPACE"it's a normal character that will be decoded like any other.

There's another encoding that is able to encoding the full range of Unicode characters: UTF-8. UTF-8 is an 8-bit encoding, which means there are no issues with byte order in UTF-8. Each byte in a UTF-8 byte sequence consists of two parts: Marker bits (the most significant bits) and payload bits. The marker bits are a sequence of zero to six 1 bits followed by a 0 bit. Unicode characters are encoded like this (with x being payload bits, which when concatenated give the Unicode character):

Range Encoding
U-00000000 ... U-0000007F 0xxxxxxx
U-00000080 ... U-000007FF 110xxxxx 10xxxxxx
U-00000800 ... U-0000FFFF 1110xxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
U-00010000 ... U-001FFFFF 11110xxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
U-00200000 ... U-03FFFFFF 111110xx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
U-04000000 ... U-7FFFFFFF 1111110x 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx

The least significant bit of the Unicode character is the rightmost x bit.

As UTF-8 is an 8-bit encoding no BOM is required and any U+FEFF character in the decoded Unicode string (even if it's the first character) is treated as a "ZERO WIDTH NO-BREAK SPACE".

Without external information it's impossible to reliably determine which encoding was used for encoding a Unicode string. Each charmap encoding can decode any random byte sequence. However that's not possible with UTF-8, as UTF-8 byte sequences have a structure that doesn't allow arbitrary byte sequence. To increase the reliability with which a UTF-8 encoding can be detected, Microsoft invented a variant of UTF-8 (that Python 2.5 calls "utf-8-sig") for its Notepad program: Before any of the Unicode characters is written to the file, a UTF-8 encoded BOM (which looks like this as a byte sequence: 0xef, 0xbb, 0xbf) is written. As it's rather improbable that any charmap encoded file starts with these byte values (which would e.g. map to


in iso-8859-1), this increases the probability that a utf-8-sig encoding can be correctly guessed from the byte sequence. So here the BOM is not used to be able to determine the byte order used for generating the byte sequence, but as a signature that helps in guessing the encoding. On encoding the utf-8-sig codec will write 0xef, 0xbb, 0xbf as the first three bytes to the file. On decoding utf-8-sig will skip those three bytes if they appear as the first three bytes in the file.

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