Lesson 14

Fonts and Unicode engines

This lesson gives context on how LaTeX interprets Unicode input and how that affects what you type and the fonts you use. Learn about Unicode and OpenType fonts support.

When TeX and LaTeX first started being widely used they largely only handled European languages out of the box, although there was some capability for using other alphabets such as Greek and Russian.

Accents and accented letters

Originally, accents and accented letters were typed using control sequences or macros such as \c{c} for ‘ç’ and \'e for ‘é’. While some people continue to use these input methods because they can be easier to type, others wanted to be able to use the keys on their keyboards to input such symbols directly.

Before Unicode, LaTeX provided support for many types of file encoding that allowed text to be written in various languages natively — for example, using the latin1 encoding French users could write ‘déjà vu’ and LaTeX would internally translate the accented letters into TeX commands to produce the correct output.

This approach is still in use in modern LaTeX when using the pdflatex engine. By default all files are assumed to be Unicode (UTF-8 encoded) unless otherwise specified. Although this engine is limited to 8-bit fonts, most European languages can be supported.

Font selection

Font selection with pdflatex uses the robust LaTeX font selection scheme, and nowadays there are many fonts ready-to-use in a standard LaTeX distribution. For example, the TeX Gyre fonts are a suite of high-quality fonts based on common fonts that most people are familiar with such as Times, Helvetica, Palatino, and others. To load these fonts, it is as simple as loading a package with the appropriate name. For a Times lookalike, the TeX Gyre name is Termes:


For pdflatex, most fonts are accessible through packages. You can have a look at The LaTeX Font Catalogue or the CTAN page on the ‘Font’ topic to see some options. You can also search on the Internet for the font you want, and look for a pdflatex-compatible package version. If you want to use a proprietary font, you can search for a suitable clone, which for most applications is similar enough to the original.

The Unicode era

As pdflatex is limited to 8-bit file encodings and 8-bit fonts, it cannot natively use modern OpenType fonts and easily switch between multiple languages that use different alphabets (or scripts, to use the technical term). There are two replacements for pdfTeX that natively use Unicode input and modern fonts: XeTeX and LuaTeX. For LaTeX, these are typically invoked in your editor using the engines xelatex and lualatex respectively.

In these engines, font selection is performed by the fontspec package, and for simple documents can look as easy as:


This selects the TeX Gyre Termes font, as in the pdflatex example above. Notably, this approach works for any OpenType font. Some fonts available for pdflatex are also available to xelatex and lualatex through their respective packages as well, or by loading any font you have installed on your computer by using fontspec as shown above.

The LaTeX Font Catalogue also shows fonts with OpenType formats available, so you can use that as a resource for looking up fonts, as well as the CTAN page mentioned earlier.

Having selected a font, input can now be typed directly in plain Unicode into a source document. Here is an example showing some Latin and Greek letters as well as some CJK ideographs:

% !TEX xelatex

ABC → αβγ → {\cjkfont 你好}


When switching between languages it is usually important to also change things like hyphenation patterns and so on, and the babel and polyglossia packages both provide robust features to do this.