BMCR 1998.01.11

98.1.11, Palatino Unicode with Polytonic Greek

Microsoft is not getting many public pats on the back these days, but computer-using Hellenists might want to express gratitude when they learn that, in its expansion of support for Unicode, it has assigned one of its highest priorities to polytonic Greek. 1

The poor polytonic system needed all the help it could get. The number of typographers adept in ancient Greek was already low when, in 1982, the Greek government decreed the end of the ancient accents and breathings in a language that had long ceased to need them, and officially sanctioned the single-accent system (monotonic). 2 The decision was without question long overdue, but now knowledge of the polytonic system even in Greece would decline with each generation, and the results for typesetting classical Greek seemed catastrophic. (I remember the days when it looked like all non-handwritten ancient Greek texts were going to have to be typed on IBM selectrics.)

Fortunately, the Macintosh in 1984 gave us multiple fonts, and saved printed polytonic Greek from extinction; but since polytonic was of interest only to scholars, the result was a proliferation of amateur fonts. 3 Since all the classical Greek fonts were made by scholars working separately, there developed no standard encoding, and these days you don’t just type Greek, you type SuperGreek, GreekKeys (also known as SMK, the initials of its author’s wife), Graeca, Ismini, or (for Windows) WinGreek (which now has spawned “son of WinGreek”), Silver Mountain, or Word Perfect, not to speak of ISO (“code pages” for DOS) or (within Greece) ELOT. No two of these encodings have ever managed to be quite alike, and no font-maker has offered more than one encoding. As a result, you must choose your Greek affiliation very carefully, since you may be stuck with it a long time. The situation is getting still worse as the Macintosh must either disappear or change to survive (either one a bad option for Mac traditionalists), and WORD 97 for Windows starts to be unfriendly to previously-acceptable non-English fonts.

The solution to this confusion was to be Unicode, a font system of the future with thousands of characters in each font (e. g., “Times” can include not only Greek and Cyrillic but also Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Hieroglyphics). When it came to polytonic Greek, Unicode made an initial blunder. 4 It declined to assign Unicode slots to the character+accent combinations of polytonic Greek, opting instead for a single set of “combining” diacritics to accompany every vowel—e. g., the single circumflex could in itself be no different in width or spacing when placed over the omega than over an iota. 5 Fortunately that decision was altered in version 2 of the Unicode standard, so that we now have the monotonic Greek alphabet in “basic Greek”, and the whole range of standard ancient (polytonic) accent/character combinations in “Greek Extended.”6

Unicode was not supposed to be supported yet in Windows 95, but WORD 97, along with other changes in font handling, has now quietly enabled all the characters in any unicode font to be accessed via the “Insert Symbol” command, and partial Unicode sets (including Cyrillic and monotonic Greek) are now present in Arial, Times, and Lucida Sans Unicode. 7 It seems to have been the decision of Robert Norton, a font consultant and vice-president at Microsoft, that the Unicode extended Greek (polytonic) character set would also be included with the next new Windows font, Palatino.

Palatino had been designed by Hermann Zapf for Linotype in the 1950’s, and became the favorite system font on the Macintosh for its combination of elegantly varied strokes and a simplicity and uniformity that made it both decorative and easy to read on any printer (or screen). The new Palatino for Windows 95 is just as versatile, and its Greek letters mostly have the same characteristics. It is based on sketches approved by Zapf himself, so the major decisions seem to be his own. And yet, oddly for a font where English and Greek letters co-exist, its Greek alphabet seems not to be based on the Palatino letter-shapes, but on Zapf’s more ornamental Greek font “Heraklit” of the 1950’s. 8 This font had four characters (alpha, pi, omega and epsilon) whose left-hand uprights leaned slightly forward, and the new Palatino Greek does the same—except that, to my mind, the new font takes the slant too far, with the result that these four letters, if placed next to upright letters like iota or mu, can stick out as if they were misplaced italics. Linotype’s previous Palatino Greek (Zapf, in Greek Letters, p. 26 fig. 41 and p. 27) had characters more uniform, and more resembling the English letters—although they are not as light and readable as Heraklit and the new Palatino Greek.

The decision to design separate styles beyond the plain (“Roman”) one is perhaps not as important to hellenists, who seldom use anything but simple upright text. But the italic version of the new Palatino Greek, whose letters are more uniform in slope, and whose characters are all somewhat lighter, with just the right slope for each, might actually be preferred by some Greek scholars for general use over the Roman (just as many now prefer the sloping Porson). The new bold Palatino is admirably understated, but still recognizable for emphasis, as is the bold italic with its natural-looking spacing, and only a slightly heavier cursive style.

For a computer font, the on-screen display is a vital consideration also, and here is where Palatino Greek is especially fine. I found that the “hints” built into each TrueType glyph made the letters produced on screen easy to read down to 8 points on the screen, and accents can be easily distinguished down to 10 points without a problem. 9

The new Palatino will contain digamma, sampi, koppa, stigma, and all the standard accent combinations; it also has one non-standard one, in an oddity every classicist will notice right away, namely iota subscripts under capital letters. This mistake is not the fault of the Palatino design team, but a longstanding error made already by Unicode and ISO before it, which it is too late to correct. (That it IS an error is clear from Unicode’s “Greek extended” web page, which calls the iota “prosgegrammeni” , i. e. “adscript”, while nevertheless illustrating it as subscript.) But the inclusion of these characters does no real harm, since they simply won’t be used.

The only real bad news is that this font, unlike modern Greek, still lacks a keyboard-entry utility for typing Greek accents. Microsoft evidently expects us to type unaccented Greek characters using its modern Greek keyboard utility, but for accented ones, to use solely “Insert Symbol.” That is not, of course, a viable alternative: the letters in “Insert Symbol” are far too small to display accent combinations, and the accents do not appear in a regular pattern inn the character grid. So, keyboard utilities are needed, but others will have to supply them; perhaps there may be some available by the time this Palatino appears next year. 10

So why enter Unicode polytonic Greek at all now, when it is so cumbersome to type, is only available in WORD 97 so far, 11 and not usable in other programs yet? One immediate reason is that no other Greek works very well in WORD 97 anyway. But a better one is that there is a good chance Unicode is actually going to become the standard, and much less likelihood that you will need to enter the same text again in some other encoding later. One could imagine that with Unicode there might some day be 1) universal support for polytonic Greek in standard word processors and other programs; 2) easier inclusion of ancient Greek into portable documents, especially the world wide web; 3) a wide selection of ancient Greek fonts available in a single encoding (and accessible with the same keyboard utilities), as existing Greek fonts are re-encoded and professional font designers make new ones. None of these is remotely true yet, but if you are just starting to type that 1,000-page book, with dozens of Greek words on every page, then Unicode certainly seems the encoding to bet on.

Palatino Unicode Greek may not become as universal a font for ancient Greek in Windows as it has been on the Macintosh for English—classicists tend to prefer the familiar, so when the current fonts from Allotype, WinGreek, GreekKeys and the Greek Font Society appear in Unicode encoding, they will continue to be popular—but it is heartening to know that the first commercial product in the new encoding will appear with such a high standard both of scholarly correctness and typographic style.

* This review is also on a web page, with SAMPLES of all four Palatino Greek styles, at:

1. This review is based on a pre-publication version of the font, kindly approved by Greg Hitchcock of Microsoft, and much helpful information supplied by Geraldine Wade of Monotype; but please do not ask them (or me) for an early copy! For Unicode versions of other polytonic Greek fonts available right now that will work in WORD 97 and will be compatible with Palatino, see note 11 below. (All World Wide Web links listed below were valid as of December 1997.)

2. For details see the late Nicolaos Panayotakis, “A Watershed in the History of Greek Script: Abolishing the Polytonic”, in M. Macrakis (ed.), Greek Letters From Tablets to Pixels, New Castle Delaware, 1996, 197-205 (= Greek Letters below).

3. Jeffrey Rusten, “Polytonic Greek Fonts and Keyboards in the United States”, in Greek Letters, pp. 205-216. The highest-quality among these fonts, in my opinion, are from Allotype Typographics (Kadmos, Bosporos, and the Athens-based Greek Font Society (Bodoni, Didot, Porson, New Hellenic, all sold by Scholars Press software); but not even they are from commercial font-studios. Until now both Linotype-Hell and Monotype offered some polytonic Greek fonts (missing some vital characters for ancient Greek), but at higher prices, and without documentation or technical support.

4. Perhaps they had the same misconception as one Unicode enthusiast, who warned me that the Greek government had now declared printing books in polytonic Greek to be illegal.

5. The font series “SuperGreek” from Linguist’s Software ( handles accents this way today, but the majority of Greek fonts contain each accented vowel as a single unit (even if it is typed by two strokes on a keyboard). The first attempt to save time and money by separating accents from their vowels in typesetting was made by Aldus Manutius, see Nicolas Barker, “The Relationship of Greek manuscripts and Printing Types in 15th Century Italy,” in Greek Letters, pp. 93-108.

6. For a table listing all the characters included, see (

7. For information on typing monotonic Greek with multilanguage support in Windows 95, see ( You can find whether a font supports Unicode and other information by downloading and using Microsoft’s new font properties extension (

8. For samples of Heraklit see Zapf’s article “The Development of Greek Typefaces”, in Greek Letters pp. 4-29; this acute survey of the historical Greek printing types, including Zapf’s own, is bracingly opinionated; he singles out for special criticism the crabbed, ill-assorted Greek characters of the early Aldine editions, the poor spacing and extra curls of Bodoni Greek, and the unnatural weights and skewered axes of Didot’s Greek letters.

9. In theory Windows 95 supports “bitmap” screen fonts at small point sizes like the Macintosh, but in practice they cause nothing but problems.

10. Probably with an upgrade of Microsoft Publisher rather than as a system font, because of shared ownership arrangements with Linotype and Monotype. Those who are eager to use Unicode immediately, even without a keyboard utility, can find two Unicode fonts containing polytonic Greek right away: “Production First” fonts, telephone 1-800-431-3668 ( A GreekKeys upgrade with this font and a Unicode keyboard utility is expected for spring 1998 from Scholars Press Software (

11. WORD 97 treats these polytonic words as proper units, which can be selected like other words, searched for and replaced and perhaps, one day, spell-checked.