Example of adjusting Arabic vowel positions

Follow-up example to the previous post

A slightly more intricate example, this time showing the “before and after” effect of vowel adjustments. Again, this was achieved with a HarfBuzz-based pre-processor.

TeX file generated using HarfBuzz

Again, TeX code shown on individual lines for greater clarity.

\hbox to 0pt{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph911 \special{color pop}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\nointerlineskip\moveright 6.53bp\hbox{\raise-2.71bp\hbox{\special{pdf: content q 0.25 w 0 0 m -0.37 14.60  3.69  4.38 re S Q}\XeTeXglyph911 }}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph907 \special{color pop}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\nointerlineskip\moveright 3.56bp\hbox{\raise-4.82bp\hbox{\special{pdf: content q 0.25 w 0 0 m -0.72 14.60  4.73  3.31 re S Q}\XeTeXglyph907 }}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph907 \special{color pop}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\nointerlineskip\moveright 1.82bp\hbox{\raise-3.24bp\hbox{\special{pdf: content q 0.25 w 0 0 m -0.72 14.60  4.73  3.31 re S Q}\XeTeXglyph907 }}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph911 \special{color pop}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\nointerlineskip\moveright 3.47bp\hbox{\raise-4.35bp\hbox{\special{pdf: content q 0.25 w 0 0 m -0.37 14.60  3.69  4.38 re S Q}\XeTeXglyph911 }}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph907 \special{color pop}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\nointerlineskip\moveright 2.20bp\hbox{\raise-2.64bp\hbox{\special{pdf: content q 0.25 w 0 0 m -0.72 14.60  4.73  3.31 re S Q}\XeTeXglyph907 }}}}

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Colouring Arabic vowels with XeTeX and a HarfBuzz pre-processor


Using an external pre-processor (built using HarfBuzz) you can achieve affects that are not possible (or, at least, not easy) directly with XeTeX. Here’s a simple example of colouring Arabic vowels – this example is likely to be possible with XeTeX alone, but it’s just a quick demo – many other interesting possibilities come to mind. At the moment the Arabic string is hardcoded into the pre-processor, just for testing, but I plan to make it read from files output by XeTeX – it’s just a proof of concept. The vowel positioning was achieved by putting the vowel glyphs in boxes and shifting them according to the anchor point data provided by HarfBuzz.

My test document

\font\scha= "Scheherazade" at 12bp
\font\schb= "Scheherazade" at 30bp
\scha \noindent Here, we compare the Arabic text contained in our \XeTeX\ file to the text which is
output directly via a HarfBuzz pre-processor and input into our document from "harfarab.tex"\par\vskip10pt
\noindent \hbox to 150pt{Actual text:\hfill} \RL{هَمْزَة وَصْل}\par
\noindent \hbox to 150pt{Processed text:\hfill} \input harfarab.tex

harfarab.tex output via HarfBuzz

Displayed here on individual lines for readability.

\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\moveright 6.53bp\hbox{\raise-2.71bp\hbox{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph911 \special{color pop}}}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\moveright 3.56bp\hbox{\raise-4.82bp\hbox{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph907 \special{color pop}}}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\moveright 1.82bp\hbox{\raise-3.24bp\hbox{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph907 \special{color pop}}}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\moveright 3.47bp\hbox{\raise-4.35bp\hbox{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph911 \special{color pop}}}}}
\hbox to 0pt{\vbox{\moveright 2.20bp\hbox{\raise-2.64bp\hbox{\special{color push rgb 0 0 1}\XeTeXglyph907 \special{color pop}}}}}

The resulting PDF

As you can see, the results are identical – as you’d expect since they both use the HarfBuzz engine, one internally to XeTeX, the other externally in a pre-processor.

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Building HarfBuzz as a static library using Microsoft Visual Studio

Introduction: A very brief post

This is an extremely short post to note one way of building the superb HarfBuzz OpenType shaping library as a static library on Windows (i.e., a .lib) – using an elderly version of Visual Studio (2008)! The screenshot below shows the source files I included into my VS2008 project and the files I excluded from the build (the excluded files have a little red minus sign next to them). In short, I did not build HarfBuzz for use with ICU, Graphite or Uniscribe and excluded a few other source files that were not necessary for (my version of) a successful build. I’ve tested the .lib and, so far, it works well for what I need – but, of course, be sure to run your on tests! You will also need the FreeType library as well, which I also built as a static library. HarfBuzz also compiles nicely using MinGW to give you a DLL, but I personally prefer to build a native Windows .lib if I can get one built (without too much pain…)

Here are the preprocessor definitions that I needed to set for the project


A tip, of sorts, or at least something that worked for me. When using the HarfBuzz library UTF16 buffer functions in your own code, you may need to ensure that the wchar_t type is not treated as a built-in type. For example, using wide characters like this const wchar_t* text = L"هَمْزَة وَصْل آ"; and, say, hb_buffer_add_utf16( buffer, text, wcslen(text), 0, wcslen(text) );. Within the project property pages, Set C/C++ -> Language -> Treat wchar_t as Built-in Type = No

Here’s the list of files displayed in Visual Studio

Understanding Arabic vowel placement in OpenType fonts


This post could easily turn into the length of a small book if I covered all the background material that may be required for a full understanding. I simply cannot justify the time it would take to explore everything in full detail; so I apologize for the brevity if there’s insufficient detail for many readers. In addition, I’ve been rather loose in my definition of “vowels” and should be more precise to distinguish between damma/kasra/fathah and other markers such as shedda, sukoon and so forth.

The joys of TeX

One side-effect of using TeX is being distracted by the typesetting quality of materials you are reading. And this happened to me whilst trying to teach myself some Arabic. I bought many books and began to notice that the quality of Arabic typesetting was extremely variable, even from the most respected publishers. In fact, some of it was atrocious, especially the placement of vowels/markers (damma, kasra, fatha, sukoon, shadda and so forth). It was not simply a question of being “picky”, or mere aesthetics, but it actually impacted on reading the material. Often, lines of fully-vowelled Arabic text were so poorly typeset that it was hard to know which vowel belonged to which base glyph. As a small example, here’s a scan of the word “yawmu” (day) taken from a book that shall remain nameless:

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the marks above the glyphs are very distant from the base glyphs they are supposed to be marking. So, I asked myself “Why”, little did I know that it would result in me being distracted away from studying Arabic to exploring typesetting it instead. To begin to explain the problem, we can replicate the above scan with a little bit of hand-rolled PostScript code. Don’t worry about how I found the appropriate glyph names for use with the PostScript glyphshow operator. The following code initially typesets the word “yawmu” using the default glyph positions and then typesets the same glyphs by applying manual re-positioning/adjustments – moving the vowels/markers closer to the base glyphs and faking a bit of kerning too.

/ATbig /Arial findfont 30 scalefont def
/AThuge  /ArialMT findfont 75 scalefont def

50 250 moveto

ATbig setfont
(Glyphs in their default positions: ) show

AThuge setfont
/uni064F glyphshow %damma
/uni0645.fina glyphshow %meem
/uni0652 glyphshow 
/uni0648 glyphshow 
/uni064E glyphshow 
/uni064A.medi glyphshow

50 150 moveto
ATbig setfont
(Glyph positions manually adjusted: ) show

AThuge setfont
-2 -10 rmoveto
/uni064F glyphshow %damma
/uni0645.fina glyphshow %meem
gsave  2 -10 rmoveto
/uni0652 glyphshow
-15 0 rmoveto
/uni0648 glyphshow
2 -8 rmoveto
/uni064E glyphshow
/uni064A.medi glyphshow


Here’s the resulting PDF:

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So, in essence, “poor quality” typesetting of fully-vowelled Arabic can arise from typesetting processes/software that do not make any adjustments to the positions of vowels/markers with respect to the base glyph they are supposed to mark. Naturally, it would be crazy if you had to manually work out the positioning adjustments for each vowel/marker according to the glyph it is marking. Of course you don’t need to do that – if you use high quality OpenType fonts all the necessary positioning data is contained in the font itself. However, the font designer still has to work very hard to put that positioning data into OpenType font to ensure that the myriad of combinations work well – not forgetting that Arabic letters have up to 4 shapes depending on their position in the word (initial, medial, final or isolated) and have a myriad of complex ligatures which also need similar positioning data. Spare a thought for the designers who labour for hours ensuring the positioning data works.

Vowels have zero width

A small but important point to note is that the Arabic vowels (and some other markers) should be designed to have zero width: when you render or place a vowel it does not affect the current horizontal point or position on the page. Clearly, this is very important because Arabic is a joined/cursive script – non-zero vowel widths would seriously interfere with joining the base Arabic glyphs. The zero-width can be demonstrated very simply by amending the above PostScript to display just the vowels/markers: here you can see they all overlap because they do not move the current point after being displayed – because they have zero width.

/AThuge  /ArialMT findfont 500 scalefont def
50 50 moveto
AThuge setfont
0 0 1 setrgbcolor
/uni064F glyphshow %damma
0 1 0 setrgbcolor
/uni0652 glyphshow 
1 0 0 setrgbcolor
/uni064E glyphshow 

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OpenType features: anchor points (mark positioning)

To support high-quality Arabic typesetting, OpenType fonts contain the necessary positioning data to adjust the positions of vowels/markers to move them closer to, or away from, the base glyph over which they appear. So, how is this done? Again, for brevity I’m omitting a huge amount of detail but in essence the process is quite easy to understand. When you think about these positioning issues you need to think about pairs of glyphs: the base glyph – i.e., the Arabic letter in one of its forms, together with the vowel glyph or, to be more general, glyphs which are classified as marks: glyphs that appear above or below base glyphs. For each mark glyph/base glyph pair the mark glyph and base glyph are each given a so-called anchor point, which is simply an (x,y) coordinate pair (in font design space coordinates). Positioning the mark glyph with respect to the base glyph means that typesetting software obtains the anchor points (from the font file) and uses them to make positioning adjustments so that anchor points of the mark and base coincide. Here’s a simplified diagram showing anchors for a damma (mark) and the medial form of kaaf.

The following diagram simulates having displayed a medial form kaaf then the damma (marker) but without the damma’s position being adjusted via the anchor point data. If you look closely, you can see that the two crosses representing the individual anchor points do not yet coincide.

How are these anchor points created?

Well, as you’d expect it requires specialist software and a great deal of time to manually experiment and work out the best (x,y) pairs for marks/bases. Thankfully, for TrueType fonts Microsoft has generously provided an excellent free piece of software called VOLT: Visual OpenType Layout Tool. VOLT allows you to implement very sophisticated OpenType features, not only “mark to base positioning” which is what we are talking about here. If you are interested to explore this technology, you can start with SIL’s Scheherazade Regular (OpenType) developer package which contains a VOLT project file you can load and explore. See the VOLT screenshot below.

Attempting a VOLT tutorial is far outside the scope of this post. However, here’s a screenshot showing the creation of anchor points – in the lower-right corner you can see coordinate data (in font design coordinates) which are the anchor points: an (x,y) pair for the mark and base glyph.

How do you actually do the adjustment?

Well, here is where it get pretty fiddly because you have a number of coordinate systems in play plus you are dealing with right-to-left text positioning – and it all depends on the software you are using. Perhaps the easiest option (well, the easiest at 3am as I finish this article!) is to think of the damma’s position undergoing simple repositioning as indicated by this vector diagram:

In the above diagram, the vectors r1 and r2 represent the positions of the anchor points, with vector rt indicating the translation you need to apply to the damma in order for the anchors to coincide. Now, it is of course complicated by the fact that the anchor point coordinates are defined using the design space of the fonts, so you obviously need to scale the anchor point values according to the point size of your font: simply (pointsize/2048) for TrueType fonts. You obviously need to account for the coordinate system into which you are rendering the glyphs. So, if you have placed the medial kaaf at some position (a,b) on your page so you need to work out the translation vector rt to place the damma in the correct location.

And finally…

Good night, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ll fix the typos later 🙂

And really finally…

Just to note that you can think of the mark’s anchor point as translating the origin of the mark glyph:

Simple tutorial on processing Arabic text using libotf under Windows

Notes and comments are inline with the C code

A fairly basic example to explain a bit about libotf: just to “get started”. To run this, I built libotf (and FreeType) as static libraries and linked against them.

#include <windows.h>
#include <math.h>
#include <malloc.h>
#include <memory.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
// I'm including FreeType #includes directly not via #include FT_FREETYPE_H
#include <ft2build.h>
#include <freetype.h>
#include <t1tables.h>
#include <ftoutln.h>
#include <ftbbox.h>
//#include FT_FREETYPE_H
#include <otf.h>
//#include <pcre.h>
//#include <time.h>

typedef unsigned char uint8_t;
typedef unsigned int  uint32_t;

int main(int argc, char** argv)

FT_Library       font_library;
FT_Face          fontface;
FT_GlyphSlot     cur_glyph;
FT_Glyph_Metrics glyph_metrics;
OTF_GlyphString gstring;
char * fontpath;
size_t numcodepoints;
OTF *otf;
int i;

// "arabictext" is a "wide character" string. It contains a sequence of Unicode codepoints
// for each character in our string. BUT NOTE: these codepoints will be the values of the
// UNSHAPED isolated Arabic characters. What you are looking at on screen here is the result of
// applying the operating system/browser shaping engine to shape the displayed version. 
// It is really important to understand that !!

wchar_t * arabictext = L"حَرَكَات";

// I'm using the Scheherazade font from SIL (as amended by me)

// wcslen returns the string length in "wide character" units
// i.e., this gives you the number of Unicode codepoints (i.e., characters). 
// Obviously, if "arabictext" was encoded in UTF-8 (e.g., we read it from a file)
// we'd need to counts the number of codepoints by converting the UTF-8
// back into Unicode character integers (codepoints)

numcodepoints= wcslen(arabictext);

// gstring is the object we pass to the OTF library.
// First we need to tell it how long our gstring is.
// Initially, gstring.used = gstring.size until the libotf library starts to
// manipulate the gstring (glyph sequences) and perform various OpenType 
// features/lookups (e.g., GSUB subsitutions) which usually results in 
// changes to the number of glyphs present in the string.
// OK, here's where we set up the gstring for use with the OTF library


// Now we need to create our actual glyph objects
// 1 for each codepoint in our text wchar_t * arabictext

gstring.glyphs= malloc (sizeof (OTF_Glyph) * numcodepoints);
memset (gstring.glyphs, '\0', sizeof (OTF_Glyph) * numcodepoints);

// Now we are ready to use the OTF library. I should make it VERY clear
// that here we are NOT, I repeat NOT doing any shaping of the Arabic
// text. libotf does not transform the string of isolated Arabic glyphs form into their
// initial, medial or final shapes. That must happen BEFORE you pass the 
// gstring to libotf. The following is just a trivial demo showing the basics.

// Firstly, we need to assign the Unicode codepoint (character value) 
// to each of the glyphs in our gstring object --- setting gstring.glyphs[i].c for glyph i.
// (as contained in arabictext[i])
for (i=0; i < numcodepoints; i++)  {
	gstring.glyphs[i].c = arabictext[i];

// Get our instance of the libotf library
// You should check the return value: Warning, I'm being VERY lazy here!!!
otf = OTF_open(fontpath);

// Now we'll call the really interesting functions. 

// Firstly, we'll call OTF_drive_cmap2 (otf, gstring, 3, 1)
// to assign GLYPH IDENTIFIERS to our gstring. What's happening is that libotf is 
// using the CMAP table in the font to say "Hey, I've got the Unicode code point X
// can you tell me the GLYPH IDENTIFIER that maps to in the font? 

OTF_drive_cmap2 (otf, &gstring, 3, 1);

// OK, so what's the result of this? Let's see:

for (i=0; i < numcodepoints; i++)  {
	printf("Unicode character %ld maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER %ld \n", gstring.glyphs[i].c, gstring.glyphs[i].glyph_id);

//The output is:


Unicode character 1581 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 340
Unicode character 1614 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 907
Unicode character 1585 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 290
Unicode character 1614 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 907
Unicode character 1603 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 395
Unicode character 1614 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 907
Unicode character 1575 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 257
Unicode character 1578 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 322


// Next, we'll call OTF_drive_gdef (otf,  gstring) whose job it is
// to tell us what TYPE of glyph (called the Glyph Class) are we dealing with. This is the OpenType
// GDEF table which can be used to allocate an identifier (Glyph Class) to each glyph
// in the font. 

// See http://partners.adobe.com/public/developer/opentype/index_table_formats5.html
// Glyph Class 1 = Base glyph (single character, spacing glyph)
// Glyph Class 2 = Ligature glyph (multiple character, spacing glyph)
// Glyph Class 3 = Mark glyph (non-spacing combining glyph)
// Glyph Class 4 = Component glyph (part of single character, spacing glyph)

OTF_drive_gdef (otf,  &gstring);

// Let's see what we got from that:

for (i=0; i < numcodepoints; i++)  {
printf("Unicode character %ld maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER %ld which is Glyph Class %ld\n", gstring.glyphs[i].c, gstring.glyphs[i].glyph_id, gstring.glyphs[i].GlyphClass);

Unicode character 1581 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 340 which is Glyph Class 1
Unicode character 1614 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 907 which is Glyph Class 3
Unicode character 1585 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 290 which is Glyph Class 1
Unicode character 1614 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 907 which is Glyph Class 3
Unicode character 1603 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 395 which is Glyph Class 1
Unicode character 1614 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 907 which is Glyph Class 3
Unicode character 1575 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 257 which is Glyph Class 1
Unicode character 1578 maps to GLYPH IDENTIFIER 322 which is Glyph Class 1

// OK, that's the end. Time to get out of here.
// Let's be tidy!

OTF_close (otf);

return 0;


Searching for Arabic text in UTF-8 encoding using PCRE

A simple example to get you started

Based on code generated by the superb RegexBuddy software (the price is great value!), here’s a simple example of using the PCRE regular expression library to search a UTF-8 text buffer for strings of Arabic text. The actual regular expression is very simple: ([\\x{600}-\\x{6FF}]+) – it just looks for sequences of Unicode codepoints from 600 (hex) to 6FF (hex). Not a particularly efficient function but it works – e.g., should calculate buffer length once etc.

I used code like this in an Arabic text pre-processor I wrote for working with XeTeX: saving Arabic strings to a file (from XeTeX), processing the text and reading it back in via \input{...}. Special effects not directly possible in XeTeX can be achieved by a pre-processing step. Yep, involves lots of \write18{...} calls. For sure LuaTeX offers many other possibilities but XeTeX’s font handling (and use of HarfBuzz) are very convenient indeed!

// Called with a buffer containing UTF-8 encoded text
void runpcre(unsigned char * buffer)

int wordcount;
pcre *myregexp;
const char *error;
int erroroffset;
int offsetcount;
int offsets[(1+1)*3]; // (max_capturing_groups+1)*3
unsigned char *res;
wordcount = 0;

myregexp = pcre_compile("([\\x{600}-\\x{6FF}]+)",   PCRE_UTF8|PCRE_UCP  , &error, &erroroffset, NULL);
if (myregexp != NULL) {
	offsetcount = pcre_exec(myregexp, NULL, buffer, strlen(buffer), 0, 0, offsets, (1+1)*3);
	while (offsetcount > 0) {
		// match offset = offsets[0];
		// match length = offsets[1] - offsets[0];
		if (pcre_get_substring(buffer, &offsets, offsetcount, 0, &res) >= 0) {
			// Do something with match we just stored into res
			// process_string could be what ever you want to do with the Arabic test string
			process_string(res, wordcount);   
		offsetcount = pcre_exec(myregexp, NULL, buffer, strlen(buffer), offsets[1], 0, offsets, (1+1)*3);
} else {
	// DOH! Syntax error in the regular expression at erroroffset