Typing Biblical Languages in Unicode

If you’re writing in biblical studies, you need to be able to type biblical languages. Transliteration might work in some cases, but you can’t and shouldn’t always bank on being able to use transliterations when you write.

Partial English keyboardImage by Paul Zoetemeijer

Where We Were, Where We Are, and Why Unicode Is Important

In years gone by, typing biblical languages on an English keyboard required using a font that would mask English text and make it look like Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic.

For Hebrew and Aramaic, this often required typing the text backwards (i.e., left to right in the direction of English).

If you wanted to submit a paper electronically, you’d then have to ensure you used the proper font or sent or embedded the proper font with your paper.

Without that, “λόγος” could easily turn out to look like “lo/gov”—or worse—to whomever opened the file without that font installed. Thankfully, Unicode has changed all this.

“Unicode” is a system that “provides a unique number for every character, no matter what platform, device, application or language.”1

These unique numbers—like “03C2″—might not mean much to humans. But, they allow computers to tell exactly what character is being used, independent of the font in which it is typed.

So, for instance, a computer will know that “03C2” represents a human-readable final sigma (ς) and not, a Hebrew vav (ו). The computer can distinguish between these two characters even though, in by gone days, both have sometimes been mapped to the “v” on an English keyboard.

If this is all a bit too geeky, just remember that, with Unicode, a sigma is a sigma, a vav is a vav, and changing fonts doesn’t change that.

You’re already familiar with changing fonts between Times New Roman, Arial, or whatever (wingdings excepted) and having your English text remain the same.

Typing in Unicode means you can do the same thing with Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic in Times New Roman, Arial, or another Unicode-compliant font. That text will remain the same when you change fonts or send a file to someone else. If that person doesn’t have your font, their computer might substitute a different font, but it shouldn’t display gibberish.

Installing a Keyboard, or Keymap

Of course, if you want your computer to be able to tell the difference between when you press the “v” key and mean for it to use “v” and when you press the “v” key and mean for it to use “ς” or “ו”, you need some software to help.

Here enter biblical language keyboard software. You can find this available freely online or, with perhaps more limited functionality, as features within your operating system (e.g., Mac, Windows).2

Personally, I’ve preferred and used the keyboards provided by Logos. These are available for Greek, Hebrew/Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac, and transliteration.

(And no, you don’t need to purchase a base package to use these. They’re free and independent of the Logos system itself. So, you can even use these software keyboards if you use another Bible software platform altogether.)

You can download and install whichever combination of these keyboards you prefer. Inside each of the ZIP files available for download is also a PDF showing exactly what key strokes or combinations will produce what text output on the screen.

Most of the keyboards should install pretty simply by following the instructions provided on the download page. There are two possible exceptions:

  1. For a right-to-left language (e.g., Hebrew), you may need to reboot your computer or allow Windows to install support for right-to-left (or “complex script”) languages in order to use that keyboard.
  2. For the transliteration keyboard, you may end up with two English keyboards installed. To check this in Windows 10, search for “language” in the Windows menu, and open “Edit language and keyboard options.” From there, let the language list populate at the bottom of the window, and click “English” and “Options.” From there, simply click the standard US QWERTY keyboard layout, and choose to remove it. That way, you can simply use the more robust transliteration keyboard as your basic English keyboard, and you needn’t keep a fourth keyboard around to be in your way in the keyboard switcher menu (see below).
    Windows 10 Language Options dialog box image

Switching between Keyboards

To use a particular keyboard layout in Windows 10, simply choose that layout from the language button that should appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen by the default clock position.

Windows 10 keyboard switcher image

Alternatively, you can use the keyboard shortcut Alt+Shift to cycle through the languages in this menu. This will cycle through the keyboard layouts without an on-screen prompt. And you’ll quickly learn the order in which they come up.

You can also change keyboard layouts by using the shortcut Windows key+Space. This will pop the language selector up on the screen and allow you to see where you are in the cycle of selecting a language to type in.

With the Windows key depressed, press the Space bar repeatedly to cycle through the list of available languages.

When you’re ready to type in English again, simply change the keyboard switcher back to English, and you’re good to go.

Conclusion

Whether you’re just learning biblical languages or you have gotten pretty comfortable with them, being able to type them in Unicode will help you communicate more clearly and simply with others about these languages.

Once you invest just a few minutes in getting properly set up, you’ll be ready to write, and you’ll enjoy a much more seamless experience when using these languages in your writing.

Are you new to Unicode? If so, how will being able to type in Unicode change how you write? If not, what other tools or tips do you have for typing biblical languages in Unicode?


  1. Unicode Consortium, “What Is Unicode?” 
  2. SBL also has a number of resources that may prove helpful as you get set up for and used to typing in Unicode Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic via a software keyboard.