A character set is a set of symbols and encodings. A collation is a set of rules for comparing characters in a character set. Let's make the distinction clear with an example of an imaginary character set.
Suppose that we have an alphabet with four letters:
b”. We give each letter a
A” = 0,
B” = 1,
a” = 2,
b” = 3. The letter
A” is a symbol, the number 0 is
the encoding for
A”, and the combination of all
four letters and their encodings is a
Suppose that we want to compare two string values,
B”. The simplest way to do this
is to look at the encodings: 0 for
A” and 1 for
B”. Because 0 is less than 1,
we say “
A” is less than
B”. What we've just done is
apply a collation to our character set. The collation is a set
of rules (only one rule in this case): “compare the
encodings.” We call this simplest of all possible
collations a binary collation.
But what if we want to say that the lowercase and uppercase
letters are equivalent? Then we would have at least two rules:
(1) treat the lowercase letters
b” as equivalent to
B”; (2) then compare the
encodings. We call this a
case-insensitive collation. It is a
little more complex than a binary collation.
In real life, most character sets have many characters: not just
B” but whole alphabets,
sometimes multiple alphabets or eastern writing systems with
thousands of characters, along with many special symbols and
punctuation marks. Also in real life, most collations have many
rules, not just for whether to distinguish lettercase, but also
for whether to distinguish accents (an “accent” is
a mark attached to a character as in German
Ö”), and for
multiple-character mappings (such as the rule that
OE” in one of the two German
MySQL can do these things for you:
Store strings using a variety of character sets.
Compare strings using a variety of collations.
Mix strings with different character sets or collations in the same server, the same database, or even the same table.
Enable specification of character set and collation at any level.
In these respects, MySQL is far ahead of most other database management systems. However, to use these features effectively, you need to know what character sets and collations are available, how to change the defaults, and how they affect the behavior of string operators and functions.