A deep dive into Raku's Unicode support

Yesterday, I got curious about a simple question that sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole. But now I've emerged from the hole, and want to share what I've learned. (Should that be "share the rabbits I caught"? I think I'll just drop this analogy before we end up with any dead rabbits.)

This journey will take us deep into the internals of Raku, Rakudo, Not Quite Perl, and even Moar. But don't worry – this will still be relevant to our everyday use of Raku, even if you (like me!) aren't in the habit of writing any NQP.

Here was the question: What's the cleanest way to match the alphabetic ASCII characters in a Raku regex? Simple enough, right?

My first thought was something like this:

say ‘Raku's mascot: »ö«’ ~~ m:g/<[A..Za..z]>+/;
    # OUTPUT: «(「Raku」 「s」 「mascot」)»

And that works and is admirably concise. But it suffers from (what I view as) a fatal flaw: it looks exactly like the code someone would write when they want to match all alphabetic characters but forgot that they need to handle Unicode. One rule I try to stick with is that correct code shouldn't look buggy; breaking that rule is a good way to spend time "debugging" functional code. If I did use the syntax above, I'd probably feel the need to add an explanatory comment (or break it out into a named regex).

That's all pretty minor, but it got me curious. So I decided to see what people thought on the #raku IRC channel – always a good source of advice. After some helpful comments, I wound up with this:

say ‘Raku's mascot: »ö«’ ~~ m:g/[<:ASCII> & <.alpha>]+/;
    # OUTPUT: «(「Raku」 「s」 「mascot」)»

That's a whole lot better. It's slightly longer, but much more explicit.

But – hang on! – what is that <:ASCII> character class? That's not in the docs! Is it missing from the documentation? If so, I could add it – I've been trying to do my part with updating the docs.

Well, no, it isn't missing. Raku supports querying all Unicode character properties, and you can access a large number of them in a regex using the :property_name syntax.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: this post is about the journey of figuring out the answers to three questions:

  1. What Unicode properties does Raku actually support? (spoiler: all of them, sort of)
  2. How does Raku enable its Unicode support?
  3. What additional power does this give us when writing Raku code?

So, how do we start?

Diving in with &uniprop

Well, that same section of the docs mentions &uniprop, so let's start there.

say 'a'.uniprop('ASCII');
    # OUTPUT: «Basic Latin»

Ok, that's promising – and also a bit surprising. The fact that 'ASCII' is a valid argument to &uniprop is a pretty good clue that we're on the right track, although at this point I was expecting that we'd get something like True instead of Basic Latin.

Well, what's actually going on when with &uniprop? To the source code, Robin!


Right off, we're confronted with a rather long hash declaration that looks like it'll end up solving our puzzle.

my constant $prefs = nqp::hash(
    'AHex', 'B', 'ASCII_Hex_Digit', 'B', 'Age', 'S',
    'Alpha', 'B', 'Alphabetic', 'B', 'Bidi_C', 'B',
    'Bidi_Class', 'S', 'Bidi_Control', 'B', 'Bidi_M', 'B',
    #`(many more key-value pairs, in alphabetical order));

My first thought when seeing this code block was that it contained a full list of all the Unicode properties that Raku supports. That'd mean that Raku does not support all Unicode properties, just the few listed here – and, in that case, we probably ought to add this list to the documentation.

But that turns out not to be right. The clue is that this list does not include ASCII – and we already know that ASCII works. That means that Rakudo can handle items that aren't in that hash; things aren't quite as simple as they seemed at first.

Looking just below the hash declaration, we can figure out exactly what Rakudo is doing. When a key isn't present in the hash, Rakudo hits this bit of code:

    (my $result := nqp::getuniprop_str($code,$prop)),
                nqp::bindkey($prefs, $propname, 'S'),
                $result), #`(else clause omitted)))

Even without any familiarity with NQP, it's pretty clear what that does: it calls &getuniprop_str and, if that returns a truthy value, updates the hash and returns the value. That means that the real work is being done in an NQP function.

Actually, nope

When we get to the relevant line of the NQP source code, however, we find this:

    'getuniprop_str', 'getuniprop_str'

This code basically punts on implementing &getuniprop_str.

NQP says that, instead of doing anything to get Unicode properties, it'll just delegate to the respective VMs and expect them to handle the actual lookup. The line above is the code for MoarVM, but the JavaScript and JVM virtual machines both delegate in similar ways (though, in the JVM's case, it's just a stub – it looks like the relevant feature is Not Yet Implemented in the JVM runtime).

On to MoarVM

If you're a more experienced hacker – particularly if your experience includes hacking on virtual machines written in C – you might be able to follow the trail a bit more easily. Personally, however, my proficiency with C is hovering at about the "used C for the first half of a CS course and worked through K&R" level, and the closest I've come to implementing a VM was the Intcode computer from last year's Advent of Code challenge.

Fortunately for us, MoarVM is well documented, even if some of the documentation hasn't been updated all that recently. Grepping through the docs directory for "Unicode" quickly gets us to MoarVM's initial Revelation.

The Revelation tells us that MoarVM has

Unicode strings, designed with future NFG support in mind. The VM includes the Unicode Character Database, meaning that character name and property lookups, case changing and so forth can be supported without any external dependencies.

Oooh, "includes the Unicode Character Database"! That sounds promising. But, before we run off to our Internet search engine of choice to find out what that is, let's try grepping again, now with that as our search term. Grepping for "Unicode Character Database" brings us to unicode_db.c.

You can read through that file if you'd like, but I'll warn you in advance that it's a bit long. Specifically, it's 115,540 lines long – so long that GitHub refuses to even display it.

I'll save you the trouble of looking through that file: all you really need is the first two lines, anyway:

This file is generated by ucd2c.pl from the Unicode database.

(Although, if you do have an easy way to browse/search large files, you might notice the snippet {"ASCII", 6}, which provide nice confirmation that we're closing in on our goal.)

Let's follow the hint we were just given, and check out ucd2c.pl. Once again, the most important info for us is in a leading comment rather than in any of the code:

# Before running, downloading UNIDATA.zip from
# http://www.unicode.org/Public/zipped/ and extract them
# into UNIDATA in the root of this repository.

Let's follow these direction – conveniently, we can even use the companion file UCD-download.p6 to do so. This gives us… well, quite a lot actually. But, most importantly, (as revealed by, once again, trusty old grep) it gives us a file called PropertyValueAliases.txt with the following line:

blk; ASCII                            ; Basic_Latin

This, though we may not quite realize it yet, is the end of the line: we now have looked at everything we need to know to fully understand how Raku/Rakudo/MoarVM deal with Unicode properties.

Backing up, and summing up

Ok, now – now that we've found all the relevant files, and have all the pieces of the puzzle – it's time for that Internet search I mentioned earlier. Just what is the Unicode Character Database that we've been downloading, and how does it fit in with Raku?

Well, it's (exhaustively) documented, of course. But here's the short version: the Unicode Character Database is all of Unicode. The files we downloaded include every character, every property, every script – everything about Unicode and how all of it's categories relate to one another is now in that folder. And the ucd2c.pl file does exactly what it's name suggests: it converts the UCD to a C file. Specifically, to the 100k+ line unicode_db.c file we saw earlier. And then, when you compile MoarVM, that file gets compiled into a complete copy of the Unicode Character Database, available right there at runtime. Yep, MoarVM bundles all of Unicode.

When I first realized this, I was pretty surprised. To the best of my knowledge, no other language embeds the UCD in its runtime. Perl offers the UCD as a (core) module; Rust has a (well-maintained) crate; most C, C++, and Java programs link against the operating system's copy of the ICU library. Even Swift – a language with a full runtime and which is well-known for its strong Unicode support – doesn't embed the UCD in it's runtime (there was apparently a proposal to do so but as far as I can tell it never went anywhere).

I'm not saying that no other languages embed the Unicode Character Database in their runtime – there are a lot of languages out there and I bet one of you can tell me about one I don't know of – but it's definitely rare enough that I was pretty surprised when I figured out what MoarVM was up to. After giving the matter a bit more thought, though, I realized that embedding the UCD has several large advantages:

  1. It gives Raku code run-time access to all Unicode properties without any performance penalty.
  2. It allows Raku code to encode, decode, and normalize Unicode extremely quickly. This would be helpful for any language, but is absolutely essential for Raku, because we normalize strings as soon as they're created – i.e., very frequently.
  3. It ensures that a given version of Raku will always use the same version of Unicode.

After that long aside about Unicode versions and string lengths, I want to return to point 1 from the list above: including the UCD gives Raku code nearly-free runtime access to all Unicode character properties. But what are "all Unicode character properties"? Well, a lot – so many, in fact, that there doesn't seem to be a global list anywhere.

To start with, it lets you use &uniprop, &uniprops, and &unimatch to query all of the properties listed in Unicode's Property Index. In the simplest case, this will return a Boolean indicating whether the character had the property you asked about:

say ''.uniprop('Dash');    # OUTPUT: «True»
say '-¯—'.uniprops('Dash'); # OUTPUT: «(True, False, True)»
say ''.unimatch('True', 'Dash'); # OUTPUT: «True»

Other properties return something more detailed information instead of a simple Bool;

say 'a'.uniprop('Block');          # OUTPUT: «Basic Latin»
say 'a'.unimatch('Basic Latin', 'Block'); # OUTPUT: «True»

say ''.uniprop('Numeric_Value');         # OUTPUT: «5»
say ''.unimatch('5', 'Numeric_Value');   # OUTPUT: «True»
say '±'.uniprop('Name');       # OUTPUT: «PLUS-MINUS SIGN»

Note that, somewhat surprisingly, &unimatch always returns a stringified version of the return value, even when &uniprop returns a numerical value. Some of the more advanced Unicode properties include Uppercase_Mapping (helpful for addressing odd edge cases, such as when multiple lower-case letters upper case to the same value) and Bidi_Mirroring_Glyph, which displays the matching pair, if any, for a given character:

say 'a'.uniprop('Uppercase_Mapping');        # OUTPUT: «A»
say 'ςρσ'.comb.map({
    .unimatch('Σ', 'Uppercase_Mapping')
});                           # OUTPUT: «(True False True)»
say '('.uniprop('Bidi_Mirroring_Glyph');      # OUTPUT: «)»

Additionally, you can use any of the (many, many) Property Value Aliases that Unicode defines (mostly shorthands for accessing languages) – or, at least, you can sort of use them. Specifically, you can call them, but MoarVM will only run the first item in the query, not the whole thing. For example, as we saw above, ASCII should be an abbreviation for checking that Block equals Basic Latin, but &uniprop will only run the Block query. Thus it will return Basic Latin rather than True, as one might expect.

I believe that this is a bug in MoarVM, but I am not 100% positive – as I mentioned, I'm not confident in my reading of MoarVM's C code. If anyone is sure, please let me know!

# Alias for Block; Basic Latin but runs Block
say 'f'.uniprop('ASCII'); # OUTPUT: «Basic Latin»
say 'Σ'.uniprop('ASCII'); # OUTPUT: «Greek and Coptic»

With that, we have figured out quite a lot about how Raku handles Unicode. The ability to query the Unicode Character Database is a secret superpower for Raku, and helps us write code that says what we mean, instead of what we almost mean.