Traditionally, information is displayed in
sorted order to enable users to easily find the items they are looking
for. However, users of different languages might have very different
expectations of what a "sorted" list should look like. Not only does
the alphabetical order vary from one language to another, but it also
can vary from document to document within the same language. For
example, phonebook ordering might be different than dictionary
ordering. String comparison is one of the basic functions most
applications require, and yet implementations often do not match local
conventions. The ICU Collation Service provides string comparison
capability with support for appropriate sort orderings for each of the
locales you need. In the event that you have a very unusual
requirement, you are also provided the facilities to customize
Starting in release 1.8, the ICU Collation Service is updated to be fully compliant to the Unicode Collation Algorithm (UCA) (http://www.unicode.org/unicode/reports/tr10/
) and conforms to ISO 14651. There are several benefits to using the
collation algorithms defined in these standards. Some of the more
significant benefits include:
contains a large set of characters. This can make it difficult for
collation to be a fast operation or require collation to use
significant memory or disk resources. The ICU collation implementation
is designed to be fast, have a small memory footprint and be highly
The algorithms have been designed and reviewed by experts in
multilingual collation, and therefore are robust and comprehensive.
Applications that share sorted data but do not agree on how the
data should be ordered fail to perform correctly. By conforming to the
UCA/14651 standard for collation, independently developed applications,
such as those used for e-business, sort data identically and perform
The ICU Collation Service also contains several enhancements that are not available in UCA. For example:
case handling: ICU allows case differences to be ignored or flipped.
Uppercase letters can be sorted before lowercase letters, or
Easy customization: Services can be easily tailored to address a wide range of collation requirements.
Flexibility: ICU offers both sort key generation and fast
incremental string comparison. It also provides low-level access to
collation data through the collation element iterator (§)
There are many challenges when accommodating the world's languages
and writing systems and the different orderings that are used. However,
the ICU Collation Service provides an excellent means for comparing
strings in a locale-sensitive fashion.
For example, here are some of the ways languages vary in ordering strings:
letters A-Z can be sorted in a different order than in English. For
example, in Lithuanian, "y" is sorted between "i" and "k".
Combinations of letters can be treated as if they were one
letter. For example, in traditional Spanish "ch" is treated as a single
letter, and sorted between "c" and "d".
Accented letters can be treated as minor variants of the unaccented letter. For example, "é" can be treated equivalent to "e".
Accented letters can be treated as distinct letters. For
example, "Å" in Danish is treated as a separate letter that sorts just
Unaccented letters that are considered distinct in one language
can be indistinct in another. For example, the letters "v" and "w" are
two different letters according to English. However, "v" and "w" are
considered variant forms of the same letter in Swedish.
A letter can be treated as if it were two letters. For example, in traditional German "ä" is compared as if it were "ae".
Thai requires that the order of certain letters be reversed.
French requires that letters sorted with accents at the end of
the string be sorted ahead of accents in the beginning of the string.
For example, the word "côte" sorts before "coté" because the acute
accent on the final "e" is more significant than the circumflex on the
Sometimes lowercase letters sort before uppercase letters. The
reverse is required in other situations. For example, lowercase letters
are usually sorted before uppercase letters in English. Latvian letters
are the exact opposite.
Even in the same language, different applications might require
different sorting orders. For example, in German dictionaries, "öf"
would come before "of". In phone books the situation is the exact
Sorting orders can change over time due to government regulations or new characters/scripts in Unicode.
To accommodate the many languages and differing requirements, ICU collation supports customizing sort orderings - also known as tailoring. More details regarding tailoring are discussed in the Customization chapter.
The basic ICU Collation Service is provided by two main categories of APIs:
comparison - used when two strings are to be compared once: APIs return
result of comparison (greater than, equal or less than). An example
usage of this function is a string search.
Sort key generation - used when a set of strings are compared
repeatedly: APIs return a zero-terminated array of bytes per string
known as a sort key. The keys can be compared directly using strcmp or memcmp
standard library functions, saving repeated computation of each
string's relative weights. Typically, database applications use sort
keys to index strings that are compared multiple times.
Here are some API usage conventions
for the ICU Collation Service APIs.