In Russian typography the emdash, which is typed as the ligature --- in LaTeX, is 20% shorter than the standard emdash. The babel package cares this difference so that --- prints a shorter emdash if russian is the current language. However this switch mechanism works only for latex.exe engine whereas lualatex.exe and xelatex.exe type long emdash in any case.

This is because under LaTeX \selectlanguage{russian} switches current encoding from, say, OT1 or T1 to, say, T2A. As a result latin emdash comes from, say, cmr font family, whereas russian emdash comes from LH fonts (as a rule). Under LuaTeX or XeLaTeX \selectlanguage does not switch current encoding (it remains EU2 for LuaTeX or EU1 for XeTeX) so that --- always came from same font.

Note however that most fonts contain dashes of different length and, thus, it is possible (in principle) to map --- to different code points depending on the current script.

My question is: how to do that using instruments provided by the fontspec package?

Note that babel provides a shorthand "--- (if the russian option is indicated) which always types 20% shorter emdash but it also reduces spaces around the emdash and prevents the line break after it.

UPDATE: I have realised that there is no code point in modern Open Type fonts (in contrast to metafont LH fonts used in legacy LaTeX for typesetting cyrillic texts). Both polyglossia and babel with russian option compose a shorter emdash from two endashes, they define a \cyrdash macros as follows

\def\cyrdash{\hbox to.8em{--\hss--}}

and map it to a shorthand "---. So final form of my question is

How to map the ligature --- to \cyrdash? Is there any solution except for making the dash - active character?

  • I guess that this is not doable. fontspec can hardly know what language is current one. One could make - active character but this is not good solution. Jan 14, 2013 at 14:49
  • It seems to me this could be done using XeTeX mapping files and LuaTeX OTF feature files. See e.g. Serbian Cyrillic using LuaTeX and XeTeX.
    – Alan Munn
    Feb 26, 2013 at 15:55
  • Shouldn't this be the responsibility of a package such as polyglossia, which knows the language you are using? Just as it was a responsibility of babel in the LaTeX world.
    – nplatis
    Mar 17, 2013 at 9:24

1 Answer 1


As nplatis pointed out, this is actually in the responsibility of polyglossia, which works for me, but is more or less font-dependent, as polyglossia just uses two “-” U+002D HYPHEN-MINUS and overlaps them, as can be inferred from the PT Sans example, where it does not work:

Russian em-dash example (XeLaTeX)

The key to getting this to work is to add the babelshorthands=true to the language selection, so the code to create the above image is as follows:

%!TEX TS-program = xelatex
%!TEX encoding = UTF-8 Unicode

\setmainfont{PT Sans}
\setsansfont{PT Sans Caption}
\defaultfontfeatures{Scale=MatchLowercase, Mapping=tex-text}

\newfontfamily{\HT}[Scale=MatchLowercase]{Hoefler Text}
\newfontfamily{\GPP}{Garamond Premier Pro}
\newfontfamily{\CCY}{Charcoal CY}

\newcommand{\text}{Слово "--- слово.\\Слово — слово.\par}
%1. babelshorthand/2. U+2014 EM DASH

PT Sans\\
{\HT Hoefler Text\\
{\GPP Garamond Premier Pro\\
{\BV Baskerville\\
{\CCY Charcoal CY\\


For further information, see also this thread in the XeTeX mailing list. Also, babel apparently distinguishes several em-dashes for Russian:
"--- Cyrillic emdash in plain text.
"--~ Cyrillic emdash in compound names (surnames).
"--* Cyrillic emdash for denoting direct speech.
See here for more information.

On a side note, I have not succeeded in getting the shorter em-dash in regular LaTeX, just the narrower spacing, strangely enough:

Russian em-dash example (LaTeX)



Слово "--- слово.\\
Слово --- слово.\\
Слово — слово.\par% U+2014 EM DASH
  • I accepted this anwser altough this is not what I had in mind. I see that it is impossible to map --- to a code point with a short em-dash (by the way, I did not find short em-dash in Open Type fonts). Also, \defaultfontfeatures{Scale=MatchLowercase, Mapping=tex-text} did not work for me until I added Ligatures={TeX} option. Apr 6, 2013 at 5:47
  • I suppose one would have to resort to a somewhat “hacky” solution, yet this is what polyglossia already does. Of course, you could write your own macro with own kerning etc., but I am no expert on this. I have actually not found any code point in Unicode for the shorter em-dash, so I would guess the shorter em-dash—if at all present in a given font—would reside within the Private Use Area (PUA), so additionally, this would become very font-dependent. I really wonder how contemporary Russian typesetters solve this or if they just use the normal em-dash. Apr 10, 2013 at 11:28
  • Both polyglossia and babel with russian option compose a shorter em-dash from two emdash as follows: \def\cyrdash{\hbox to.8em{--\hss--}}. My question in updated form is how to map the ligature --- to \cyrdash. Apr 11, 2013 at 3:11
  • 2
    I disagree. This should mainly be a responsibility of the fonts. When the font is used in a Russian context the dash should be shorter, if this is the usage.
    – egreg
    Apr 11, 2013 at 9:22
  • @egreg I completely agree with you, yet as I have not found any instances of fonts with such capabilities, one has to find a different way to get the expected output or create one’s own font—right now I can only think of the already present \cyrdash or some scaling of the regular em-dash. This is definitely something font-creators should take a look at, but this is the first time I ever hear of this phenomenon; even in the Russian Wiki article I could not find any remark towards the reduced-length em-dash, so I reckon it is difficult for typographers to know this if they are not Russian. Apr 11, 2013 at 20:48

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