In the event an alien invasion occurred and we were forced to support their languages in all of our existing computer systems, is UTF-8 designed in a way to allow for their possibly vast amount of characters?

(Of course, we do not know if aliens actually have languages, if or how they communicate, but for the sake of the argument, please just imagine they do.)

For instance, if their language consisted of millions of newfound glyphs, symbols, and/or combining characters, could UTF-8 theoretically be expanded in a non-breaking way to include these new glyphs and still support all existing software?

I'm more interested in if the glyphs far outgrew the current size limitations and required more bytes to represent a single glyph. In the event UTF-8 could not be expanded, does that prove that the single advantage over UTF-32 is simply size of lower characters?

  • 16
    "support their languages" (my emphasis)... How many? Are we sure the languages can be broken down to characters? Maybe the language is based on spatial relations. - see Ted Chiang "Story of Your Life", Stories of Your Life and Others. At best, this is simply a max-things-in-X-bytes question (off-topic). At worst, it's speculative nonsense. (not clear what you're asking) Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 13:12
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    @ScantRoger The accepted answer does a fine job at answering the question as it was intended. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 13:13
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    The accepted answer does a fine job of telling us the facts of UTF-8, UTF-16, and UTF-32. You could simply look this up on Wikipedia. As for "alien invasion", I don't see how the answer addresses it at all. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 13:17
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    Related (on Stack Overflow): Is UTF-8 enough for all common languages?
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 13:17
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    Unicode does not support languages, it supports characters - glyphs used to represent meaning in written form. Many human languages does not have a script and hence cannot be supported by unicode. Not to mention many animals communicate but don't have a written language. Communication by say illustrations or wordless comics cannot be supported by unicode since the set of glyphs are not finite. By definition we don't know how aliens communicate, so your question is impossible to answer. If you just want to know how many distinct characters unicode can support, you should probably clarify :)
    – JacquesB
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 16:41

5 Answers 5


The Unicode standard has lots of space to spare. The Unicode codepoints are organized in “planes” and “blocks”. Of 17 total planes, there are 11 currently unassigned. Each plane holds 65,536 characters, so there's realistically half a million codepoints to spare for an alien language (unless we fill all of that up with more emoji before first contact). As of Unicode 8.0, only 120,737 code points have been assigned in total (roughly 10% of the total capacity), with roughly the same amount being unassigned but reserved for private, application-specific use. In total, 974,530 codepoints are unassigned.

UTF-8 is a specific encoding of Unicode, and is currently limited to four octets (bytes) per code point, which matches the limitations of UTF-16. In particular, UTF-16 only supports 17 planes. Previously, UTF-8 supported 6 octets per codepoint, and was designed to support 32768 planes. In principle this 4 byte limit could be lifted, but that would break the current organization structure of Unicode, and would require UTF-16 to be phased out – unlikely to happen in the near future considering how entrenched it is in certain operating systems and programming languages.

The only reason UTF-16 is still in common use is that it's an extension to the flawed UCS-2 encoding which only supported a single Unicode plane. It otherwise inherits undesirable properties from both UTF-8 (not fixed-width) and UTF-32 (not ASCII compatible, waste of space for common data), and requires byte order marks to declare endianness. Given that despite these problems UTF-16 is still popular, I'm not too optimistic that this is going to change by itself very soon. Hopefully, our new Alien Overlords will see this impediment to Their rule, and in Their wisdom banish UTF-16 from the face of the earth.

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    Actually, UTF-8 is limited to only a part of even the 4-byte-limit, in order to match UTF-16. Specifically, to 17/32 of it, slightly more than half. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 15:19
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    Outside of Windows I know of no other OS where either the OS or the majority of programs on the OS use UTF16. OSX programs are typically UTF8, Android programs are typically UTF8, Linux are typically UTF8. So all we need is for Windows to die (it already is sort of dead in the mobile space)
    – slebetman
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 3:14
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    Unless we fill all of that up with more emoji before first contact... There you have it. The most significant threat to peaceful interaction with aliens is emoji. We're doomed.
    – rickster
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 6:03
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    @slebetman Not really. Anything JVM-based uses UTF-16 (Android as well, not sure why you say it doesn't), JavaScript uses UTF-16, and given that Java and JavaScript are the most popular languages, UTF-16 is not going anywhere anytime soon.
    – Malcolm
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 8:34
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    @Kaiserludi "Most linux code uses UTF32 for unicode", yeah, no. Seriously where the hell did you get that idea? There is not even a wfopen syscall or anything else, it's UTF8 all the way. Hell even Python and Java - both which define strings as UTF-16 due to historical reasons - do not store strings as UTF-16 except when necessary.. large memory benefits and no performance hits (and that despite the additional code to handle conversions - memory is expensive, CPU is cheap). Same goes for Android - the NDK's JString is UTF8, mostly because Google engineers are not insane.
    – Voo
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 22:19

If UTF-8 is actually to be extended, we should look at the absolute maximum it could represent. UTF-8 is structured like this:

Char. number range  |        UTF-8 octet sequence
   (hexadecimal)    |              (binary)
0000 0000-0000 007F | 0xxxxxxx
0000 0080-0000 07FF | 110xxxxx 10xxxxxx
0000 0800-0000 FFFF | 1110xxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
0001 0000-0010 FFFF | 11110xxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx

(shamelessly copied from the RFC.) We see that the first byte always controls how many follow-up bytes make up the current character.

If we extend it to allow up to 8 bytes we get the additional non-Unicode representations

111110xx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
1111110x 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
11111110 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
11111111 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx

Calculating the maximum possible representations that this technique allows we come to

+ 00100000₂ * 01000000₂
+ 00010000₂ * 01000000₂^2
+ 00001000₂ * 01000000₂^3
+ 00000100₂ * 01000000₂^4
+ 00000010₂ * 01000000₂^5
+ 00000001₂ * 01000000₂^6
+ 00000001₂ * 01000000₂^7

or in base 10:

+  32 * 64
+  16 * 64^2
+   8 * 64^3
+   4 * 64^4
+   2 * 64^5
+   1 * 64^6
+   1 * 64^7

which gives us the maximum amount of representations as 4,468,982,745,216.

So, if these 4 billion (or trillion, as you please) characters are enough to represent the alien languages I am quite positive that we can, with minimal effort, extend the current UTF-8 to please our new alien overlords ;-)

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    Currently UTF-8 is limited to only code points until 0x10FFFF - but that is only for compatibility with UTF-16. If there was a need to extend it, there is no ambiguity about how to extend it with code points until 0x7FFFFFFF (that's 2³¹-1). But beyond that I have seen conflicting definitions. One definition I have seen has 111111xx as a possible first byte followed by five extension bytes for a maximum of 2³² code points. But that is only compatible with the definition you mention for the first 2³¹ code points.
    – kasperd
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 16:49
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    Yes, Wikipedia says something about UTF-16, when really they mean Unicode or ISO 10646 (depending on context). Actually, since RFC 3629, UTF-8 is undefined beyond U+10FFFF (or F4 8F BF BF in UTF-8 bytes). So, everything I mention here beyond that is pure speculation. Of course, someone could think of other extensions, where a high first byte signifies some other structure following (and hopefully not destroying self sync in the process). I tried to complete the byte scheme to be as close to the real UTF-8 as possible, though.
    – Boldewyn
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 19:47
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    That's 4 trillion, not quadrillion.
    – Ypnypn
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 0:56
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    It's not strictly necessary for the number of following bytes to always be one less than the number of leading ones in the first byte. Perl actually supports (since 2000) an internal variant of UTF-8 where the 5, 6, and 7 byte forms are the same as this answer, but FF introduces a 13-byte code unit capable of storing 72 bits. Anything over 2^36 is uniformly very expensive, but it allows encoding a 64-bit int and then some.
    – hobbs
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 17:37

RFC3629 restricts UTF-8 to a maximum of four bytes per character, with a maximum value of 0x10FFFF, allowing a maximum of 1,112,064 code points. Obviously this restriction could be removed and the standard extended, but this would prove a breaking change for existing code that works to that limit.

From a data-file point of view, this wouldn't be a breaking change as the standard works on the basis that if the most significant bit (MSB) of each byte is set, then the next byte is part of the encoding. Even before RFC3629, the standard was limited to 31 bits, leaving the MSB of the fourth byte unset.

Extending the standard beyond 0x10FFFF would break UTF-8's partial data compatibility with UTF-16 though.

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    So in theory, the data would be backwards compatible, but the code wouldn't inherently be compatible with the modification to the standard? Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 12:28
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    @Qix, That's a valid point. Any existing UTF-8 file would naturally be compatible with eg a maximum of 6 bytes to accommodate millions more code points, but many existing libraries designed to handle UTF-8 would likely not handle that extension.
    – David Arno
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 12:30
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    UTF-16 would break fatally. It can inherently only support code points up to 0x10FFFF.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 15:06
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    @gnasher729: Not as big an issue as you'd think. Pre-Unicode solved this via shift values (Shift JIS for Japanese). They'd simply mark a reserved/unused character (0xFFFD?) as a "shift character", that shifts the encoding into a more extended form. Probably UTF32. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 17:45

Really, only 2 Unicode code-points code stand for infinitely many glyphs, if they were combining characters.

Compare, for example, the two ways that Unicode encodes for the Korean Hangul alphabet: Hangul Syllables and Hangul Jamo. The character 웃 in Hangul Syllabels is the single code-point C6C3 whereas in Hangul Jamo it is the three code-points 110B (ㅇ) 116E (ㅜ) 11B9 (ㅅ). Obviously, using combining characters takes up vastly fewer code-points, but is less efficient for writing because more bytes are needed to write each character.

With this trick, there is no need to go beyond the number of code-points that can currently be encoded in UTF-8 or UTF-16.

I guess it comes down to how offended the aliens would be if their language happened to require many more bytes per message than earthly languages. If they don't mind, say, representing each of their millions of characters using a jumble of say, 100k combining characters, then there's no problem; on the other hand if being forced to use more bytes than earthlings makes them feel like second-class citizens, we could be in for some conflict (not unlike what we already observe with UTF-8).

  • This is only the case if the characters in the alien language is actually composed of a more limited set of graphemes. This might not be the case.
    – JacquesB
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 12:57
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    As far as I am aware there is no requirement that combining characters need to relate to individual graphemes. Unicode FAQ is silent on this, but my impression is that it wouldn't be any harder for a layout engine to support combing sequences that are not sequences of graphemes, since in either case a precomposed glyph would be required.
    – Owen
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 14:33
  • How long do these aliens live, and how many characters not decomposable into graphemes can they learn during childhood? And does precomposed Hangul retain its byte advantage over decomposed Hangul even after gzip? Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 15:28

Edit: The question now says "millions of new characters". This makes it easy to answer:

No. Utf-8 is a Unicode encoding. Unicode have a codespace which allows 1,114,112 distinct codepoints, and less than a million is currently unassigned. So it is not possible to support millions of new characters in Unicode. By definition no Unicode encoding can support more characters than what is defined by Unicode. (Of course you can cheat by encoding a level further - any kind of data can be represented by just two characters after all.)

To answer the original question:

Unicode does not support languages as such, it supports characters - symbols used to represent language in written form.

Not all human languages have a written representation, so not all human languages can be supported by Unicode. Furthermore many animals communicate but don't have a written language. Whales for example have a form of communication which is complex enough to call a language, but does not have any written form (and cannot be captured by existing phonetic notation either). So not even all languages on earth can be supported by Unicode.

Even worse is something like the language of bees. Not only does it not have a written form, it cannot meaningfully be represented in written form. The language is a kind of dance which basically points in a direction but relies on the current position of the sun. Therefore the dance only have informational value at the particular place and time where it is performed. A symbolic or textual representation would have to include information (location, position of the sun) which the language of bees currently cannot express.

Even a written or symbolic form of communication might not be possible to represent in Unicode. For example illustrations or wordless comics cannot be supported by Unicode since the set of glyphs is not finite. You will notice a lot of pictorial communication in international settings like an airport, so it is not inconceivable that a race of space-travelling aliens will have evolved to use a pictorial language.

Even if an alien race had a language with a writing system with a finite set of symbols, this system might not be possible to support in Unicode. Unicode expects writing to be a linear sequence of symbols. Music notation is an example of a writing system which cannot be fully represented in Unicode, because meaning is encoded in both choice of symbols and vertical and horizontal placement. (Unicode does support individual musical symbols, but cannot encode a score.) An alien race which communicated using polyphonic music (not uncommon) or a channel of communication of similar complexity, might very well have a writing system looking like an orchestral score, and Unicode cannot support this.

But lets for the sake of argument assume that all languages, even alien languages, can be expressed as a linear sequence of symbols selected from a finite set. Is Unicode big enough for an alien invasion? Unicode have currently less than a million unassigned codepoints. The Chinese language contains a hundred thousands characters according to the most comprehensive Chinese dictionary (not all of them are currently supported by Unicode as distinct characters). So only ten languages with the complexity of Chinese would use up all of Unicode. On earth we have hundreds of distinct writing systems, but luckily most are alphabetical rather than ideographical and therefore contains a small number of character. If all written languages used ideograms like Chinese, Unicode would not even be big enough for earth. The use of alphabets is derived from speech which only uses a limited number of phonemes, but that is particular for human physiology. So even a single alien planet with only a dozen of ideographical writing systems might exceed what Unicode can support. Now consider if that this alien already have invaded other planets before earth and included their writing systems in the set of characters which have to be supported.

Expansion or modification of current encodings, or introduction of new encodings will not solve this, since the limitation is in the number of code points supported by Unicode.

So the answer is most likely no.

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    You're lacking in imagination. Dance choreographers have plenty of language and terminology they can use to describe and teach the dances the stage actors are to perform. If we were to learn what bees were communicating, we could definitely devise a written terminology for it. After all, most of our written languages today are an encoding of sound. Encoding movement isn't all that different from encoding sound. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 19:43
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    Parts of this answer are good but to say "Not only does it not have a written form, it cannot possibly be represented in written form" is just plain wrong. Anything that conveys information can be reduced to bits, and anything reduced to bits can be transformed into pretty much any stream of characters you like.
    – user53141
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 21:17
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    @StevenBurnap True, but Unicode is more than just a sequence of bits. It is a way of interpreting those bits, that is fairly rigid. Yes, the Unicode character set could be expanded to represent anything from images to CNC instructions, but this would be a very different creature.
    – Owen
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 21:23
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    Keep in mind that what unicode symbols describe (in most languages) are patterns in the variation of air pressure, and that for most languages it actually does a fairly crappy job of actually matching those patterns.
    – user53141
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 21:28
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    So you mean the sentence "fly 45 seconds with the sun 15 degrees to your left, then fly 10 seconds with the sun 10 degrees to your right" is impossible? It certainly requires the position of the sun at the time as context.
    – user53141
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 3:26

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