Using UTF-8 with Gentoo
What is a Character Encoding?
Computers do not understand text themselves. Instead, every character is
represented by a number. Traditionally, each set of numbers used to represent
alphabets and characters (known as a coding system, encoding or character set)
was limited in size due to limitations in computer hardware.
The History of Character Encodings
The most common (or at least the most widely accepted) character set is
ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). It is widely
held that ASCII is the most successful software standard ever. Modern ASCII
was standardised in 1986 (ANSI X3.4, RFC 20, ISO/IEC 646:1991, ECMA-6) by the
American National Standards Institute.
ASCII is strictly seven-bit, meaning that it uses bit patterns representable
with seven binary digits, which provides a range of 0 to 127 in decimal. These
include 32 non-visible control characters, most between 0 and 31, with the
final control character, DEL or delete at 127. Characters 32 to 126 are
visible characters: a space, punctuation marks, Latin letters and numbers.
The eighth bit in ASCII was originally used as a parity bit for error checking.
If this is not desired, it is left as 0. This means that, with ASCII, each
character is represented by a single byte.
Although ASCII was enough for communication in modern English, in other
European languages that include accented characters, things were not so easy.
The ISO 8859 standards were developed to meet these needs. They were backwards
compatible with ASCII, but instead of leaving the eighth bit blank, they used
it to allow another 127 characters in each encoding. ISO 8859's limitations
soon came to light, and there are currently 15 variants of the ISO 8859
standard (8859-1 through to 8859-15). Outside of the ASCII-compatible byte
range of these character sets, there is often conflict between the letters
represented by each byte. To complicate interoperability between character
encodings further, Windows-1252 is used in some versions of Microsoft Windows
instead for Western European languages. This is a superset of ISO 8859-1,
however it is different in several ways. These sets do all retain ASCII
The necessary development of completely different single-byte encodings for
non-Latin alphabets, such as EUC (Extended Unix Coding) which is used for
Japanese and Korean (and to a lesser extent Chinese) created more confusion,
while other operating systems still used different character sets for the same
languages, for example, Shift-JIS and ISO-2022-JP. Users wishing to view
cyrillic glyphs had to choose between KOI8-R for Russian and Bulgarian or
KOI8-U for Ukrainian, as well as all the other cyrillic encodings such as the
unsuccessful ISO 8859-5, and the common Windows-1251 set. All of these
character sets broke most compatibility with ASCII (although KOI8 encodings
place cyrillic characters in Latin order, so in case the eighth bit is
stripped, text is still decipherable on an ASCII terminal through case-reversed
This has led to confusion, and also to an almost total inability for
multilingual communication, especially across different alphabets. Enter
What is Unicode?
Unicode throws away the traditional single-byte limit of character sets. It
uses 17 "planes" of 65,536 code points to describe a maximum of 1,114,112
characters. As the first plane, aka. "Basic Multilingual Plane" or BMP,
contains almost everything you will ever use, many have made the wrong
assumption that Unicode was a 16-bit character set.
Unicode has been mapped in many different ways, but the two most common are
UTF (Unicode Transformation Format) and UCS (Universal Character
Set). A number after UTF indicates the number of bits in one unit, while the
number after UCS indicates the number of bytes. UTF-8 has become the most
widespread means for the interchange of Unicode text as a result of its
eight-bit clean nature, and it is the subject of this document.
UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding, which in this instance means
that it uses 1 to 4 bytes per symbol. So, the first UTF-8 byte is used for
encoding ASCII, giving the character set full backwards compatibility with
ASCII. UTF-8 means that ASCII and Latin characters are interchangeable with
little increase in the size of the data, because only the first bit is used.
Users of Eastern alphabets such as Japanese, who have been assigned a higher
byte range are unhappy, as this results in as much as a 50% redundancy in their
What UTF-8 Can Do for You
UTF-8 allows you to work in a standards-compliant and internationally accepted
multilingual environment, with a comparatively low data redundancy. UTF-8 is
the preferred way for transmitting non-ASCII characters over the Internet,
through Email, IRC or almost any other medium. Despite this, many people regard
UTF-8 in online communication as abusive. It is always best to be aware of the
attitude towards UTF-8 in a specific channel, mailing list or Usenet group
before using non-ASCII UTF-8.
Setting up UTF-8 with Gentoo Linux
Finding or Creating UTF-8 Locales
Now that you understand the principles behind Unicode, you're ready to start
using UTF-8 with your system.
The preliminary requirement for UTF-8 is to have a version of glibc installed
that has national language support. The recommend means to do this is the
/etc/locale.gen file. It is beyond the scope of this document to
explain the usage of this file though. It is explained in the Gentoo Localization
Next, we'll need to decide whether a UTF-8 locale is already available for our
language, or whether we need to create one.
Code Listing 2.1: Checking for an existing UTF-8 locale
# locale -a | grep 'en_GB'
From the output of this command line, we need to take the result with a suffix
similar to .UTF-8. If there is no result with a suffix similar to
.UTF-8, we need to create a UTF-8 compatible locale.
Only execute the following code listing if you do not have a UTF-8 locale
available for your language.
Code Listing 2.2: Creating a UTF-8 locale
# localedef -i en_GB -f UTF-8 en_GB.UTF-8
Another way to include a UTF-8 locale is to add it to the
/etc/locale.gen file and generate necessary locales with
Code Listing 2.3: Line in /etc/locale.gen
Setting the Locale
There is one environment variable that needs to be set in order to use our new
UTF-8 locales: LC_CTYPE (or optionally LANG, if you want to change
the system language as well). There are also many different ways to set it; some
people prefer to only have a UTF-8 environment for a specific user, in which
case they set them in their ~/.profile (if you use /bin/sh),
~/.bash_profile or ~/.bashrc (if you use
/bin/bash). More details and best practices can be found in our Localization Guide.
Others prefer to set the locale globally. One specific circumstance where
the author particularly recommends doing this is when
/etc/init.d/xdm is in use, because
this init script starts the display manager and desktop before any of the
aforementioned shell startup files are sourced, and so before any of the
variables are in the environment.
Setting the locale globally should be done using
/etc/env.d/02locale. The file should look something like the
Code Listing 2.4: Demonstration /etc/env.d/02locale
You can also substitute LC_CTYPE for LANG. For more information on
the categories affected by using LC_CTYPE, please read the GNU
Next, the environment must be updated with the change.
Code Listing 2.5: Updating the environment
>>> Regenerating /etc/ld.so.cache...
* Caching service dependencies ...
# source /etc/profile
Now, run locale with no arguments to see if we have the correct
variables in our environment:
Code Listing 2.6: Checking if our new locale is in the environment
That's everything. You are now using UTF-8 locales, and the next hurdle is the
configuration of the applications you use from day to day.
When Unicode first started gaining momentum in the software world, multibyte
character sets were not well suited to languages like C, in which many of the
day-to-day programs people use are written. Even today, some programs are not
able to handle UTF-8 properly. Fortunately, most are!
Filenames, NTFS, and FAT
There are several NLS options in the Linux kernel configuration menu, but it is
important to not become confused! For the most part, the only thing you need to
do is to build UTF-8 NLS support into your kernel, and change the default NLS
option to utf8.
Code Listing 3.1: Kernel configuration steps for UTF-8 NLS
File Systems -->
Native Language Support -->
(utf8) Default NLS Option
<*> NLS UTF8
If you plan on mounting NTFS partitions, you may need to specify an nls=
option with mount. If you plan on mounting FAT partitions, you may need to
specify a codepage= option with mount. Optionally, you can also set a
default codepage for FAT in the kernel configuration. Note that the
codepage option with mount will override the kernel settings.
Code Listing 3.2: FAT settings in kernel configuration
File Systems -->
DOS/FAT/NT Filesystems -->
(437) Default codepage for fat
You should avoid setting Default iocharset for fat to UTF-8, as it is
not recommended. Instead, you may want to pass the option utf8=true when
mounting your FAT partitions. For further information, see man mount and
the kernel documentation at
For changing the encoding of filenames, app-text/convmv can be used.
Code Listing 3.3: Example usage of convmv
# emerge --ask app-text/convmv
# convmv -f <current-encoding> -t utf-8 <filename>
# convmv -f iso-8859-1 -t utf-8 filename
For changing the contents of files, use the iconv utility,
bundled with glibc:
Code Listing 3.4: Example usage of iconv
# iconv -f iso-8859-1 -t utf-8 filename
# iconv -f iso-8859-1 -t utf-8 filename > newfile
app-text/recode can also be used for this purpose.
The System Console
You need >=sys-apps/baselayout-1.11.9 for Unicode on the console.
To enable UTF-8 on the console, you should edit /etc/rc.conf and
set UNICODE="yes", and also read the comments in that file -- it is
important to have a font that has a good range of characters if you plan on
making the most of Unicode. For this to work, make sure you have properly
created a Unicode locale as explained in Chapter
The KEYMAP variable, set in /etc/conf.d/keymaps, should
have a Unicode keymap specified.
Code Listing 3.5: Example /etc/conf.d/keymaps snippet
Ncurses and Slang
Ignore any mention of Slang in this section if you do not have it installed or
do not use it.
It is wise to add unicode to your global USE flags in
/etc/portage/make.conf, and then to remerge sys-libs/ncurses and
sys-libs/slang if appropriate. Portage will do this automatically when
you update your system:
Code Listing 3.6: Updating your system
# emerge --update --deep --newuse world
We also need to rebuild packages that link to these, now the USE changes have
been applied. The tool we use (revdep-rebuild) is part of the
Code Listing 3.7: Rebuilding of programs that link to ncurses or slang
# revdep-rebuild --soname libncurses.so.5
# revdep-rebuild --soname libslang.so.1
KDE, GNOME and Xfce
All of the major desktop environments have full Unicode support, and will
require no further setup than what has already been covered in this guide. This
is because the underlying graphical toolkits (Qt or GTK+2) are UTF-8 aware.
Subsequently, all applications running on top of these toolkits should be
UTF-8-aware out of the box.
The exceptions to this rule come in Xlib and GTK+1. GTK+1 requires a
iso-10646-1 FontSpec in the ~/.gtkrc, for example
-misc-fixed-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1. Also, applications using
Xlib or Xaw will need to be given a similar FontSpec, otherwise they will not
If you have a version of the gnome1 control center around, use that instead.
Pick any iso10646-1 font from there.
Code Listing 3.8: Example ~/.gtkrc (for GTK+1) that defines a Unicode compatible font
widget_class "*" style "user-font"
If an application has support for both a Qt and GTK+2 GUI, the GTK+2 GUI will
generally give better results with Unicode.
X11 and Fonts
TrueType fonts have support for Unicode, and most of the fonts that ship with
Xorg have impressive character support, although, obviously, not every single
glyph available in Unicode has been created for that font. To build fonts
(including the Bitstream Vera set) with support for East Asian letters with X,
make sure you have the cjk USE flag set. Many other applications utilise
this flag, so it may be worthwhile to add it as a permanent USE flag.
Also, several font packages in Portage are Unicode aware.
Code Listing 3.9: Optional: Install some more Unicode-aware fonts
# emerge terminus-font intlfonts freefonts corefonts
Window Managers and Terminal Emulators
Window managers not built on GTK or Qt generally have very good Unicode
support, as they often use the Xft library for handling fonts. If your window
manager does not use Xft for fonts, you can still use the FontSpec mentioned in
the previous section as a Unicode font.
Terminal emulators that use Xft and support Unicode are harder to come by.
Aside from Konsole and gnome-terminal, the best options in Portage are
gnustep-apps/terminal, x11-terms/mlterm, or plain
x11-terms/xterm when built with the unicode USE flag and invoked
as uxterm. app-misc/screen supports UTF-8 too, when invoked as
screen -U or the following is put into the ~/.screenrc:
Code Listing 3.10: ~/.screenrc for UTF-8
Vim, Emacs, Xemacs and Nano
Vim provides full UTF-8 support, and also has builtin detection of UTF-8 files.
For further information in Vim, use :help mbyte.txt.
Emacs version 23 and Xemacs version 21.5 have full UTF-8 support. Emacs 24 will
also support editing bidirectional text.
Nano has provided full UTF-8 support since version 1.3.6.
Currently, bash provides full Unicode support through the GNU readline
library. Z Shell (zsh) offers Unicode support with the unicode USE
The C shell, tcsh and ksh do not provide UTF-8 support at all.
Irssi has complete UTF-8 support, although it does require a user
to set an option.
Code Listing 3.11: Enabling UTF-8 in Irssi
/set term_charset UTF-8
For channels where non-ASCII characters are often exchanged in non-UTF-8
charsets, the /recode command may be used to convert the characters.
Type /help recode for more information.
The Mutt mail user agent has very good Unicode support. To use UTF-8 with Mutt,
you don't need to put anything in your configuration files. Mutt will work
under unicode enviroment without modification if all your configuration files
(signature included) are UTF-8 encoded.
You may still see '?' in mail you read with Mutt. This is a result of people
using a mail client which does not indicate the used charset. You can't do much
about this than to ask them to configure their client correctly.
Further information is available from the Mutt Wiki.
Man pages are an integral part of any Linux machine. To ensure that any
unicode in your man pages render correctly, edit /etc/man.conf
and replace a line as shown below.
Code Listing 3.12: man.conf changes for Unicode support
NROFF /usr/bin/nroff -Tascii -c -mandoc
NROFF /usr/bin/nroff -mandoc -c
elinks and links
These are commonly used text-based browsers, and we shall see how we can enable
UTF-8 support on them. On elinks and links, there are two ways to
go about this, one using the Setup option from within the browser or editing the
config file. To set the option through the browser, open a site with
elinks or links and then Alt+S to enter the Setup Menu then
select Terminal options, or press T. Scroll down and select the last
option UTF-8 I/O by pressing Enter. Then Save and exit the menu. On
links you may have to do a repeat Alt+S and then press S to
save. The config file option, is shown below.
Code Listing 3.13: Enabling UTF-8 for elinks/links
set terminal.linux.utf_8_io = 1
terminal "xterm" 0 1 0 us-ascii utf-8
Samba is a software suite which implements the SMB (Server Message Block)
protocol for UNIX systems such as Macs, Linux and FreeBSD. The protocol
is also sometimes referred to as the Common Internet File System (CIFS). Samba
also includes the NetBIOS system - used for file sharing over windows networks.
Code Listing 3.14: Enabling UTF-8 for Samba
dos charset = 1255
unix charset = UTF-8
display charset = UTF-8
Testing it all out
There are numerous UTF-8 test websites around. net-www/w3m,
net-www/links, net-www/elinks, net-www/lynx and all
Mozilla based browsers (including Firefox) support UTF-8. Konqueror and Opera
have full UTF-8 support too.
When using one of the text-only web browsers, make absolutely sure you are
using a Unicode-aware terminal.
If you see certain characters displayed as boxes with letters or numbers
inside, this means that your font does not have a character for the symbol or
glyph that the UTF-8 wants. Instead, it displays a box with the hex code of the
Dead keys may be used to input characters in X that are not included on
your keyboard. These work by pressing your right Alt key (or in some countries,
AltGr) and an optional key from the non-alphabetical section of the keyboard to
the left of the return key at once, releasing them, and then pressing a letter.
The dead key should modify it. Input can be further modified by using the Shift
key at the same time as pressing the AltGr and modifier.
To enable dead keys in X, you need a layout that supports it. Most European
layouts already have dead keys with the default variant. However, this is not
true of North American layouts. Although there is a degree of inconsistency
between layouts, the easiest solution seems to be to use a layout in the form
"en_US" rather than "us", for example. The layout is set in
/etc/X11/xorg.conf like so:
Code Listing 3.15: /etc/X11/xorg.conf snippet
Option "XkbLayout" "en_US"
The preceding change only needs to be applied if you are using a North American
layout, or another layout where dead keys do not seem to be working. European
users should have working dead keys as is.
This change will come into effect when your X server is restarted. To apply the
change now, use the setxkbmap tool, for example, setxkbmap en_US.
It is probably easiest to describe dead keys with examples. Although the
results are locale dependent, the concepts should remain the same regardless of
locale. The examples contain UTF-8, so to view them you need to either tell
your browser to view the page as UTF-8, or have a UTF-8 locale already
When I press AltGr and [ at once, release them, and then press a, 'ä' is
produced. When I press AltGr and [ at once, and then press e, 'ë' is produced.
When I press AltGr and ; at once, 'á' is produced, and when I press AltGr and ;
at once, release them, and then press e, 'é' is produced.
By pressing AltGr, Shift and [ at once, releasing them, and then pressing a, a
Scandinavian 'å' is produced. Similarly, when I press AltGr, Shift and [ at
once, release only the [, and then press it again, '˚' is produced.
Although it looks like one, this (U+02DA) is not the same as a degree symbol
(U+00B0). This works for other accents produced by dead keys — AltGr and [,
releasing only the [, then pressing it again makes '¨'.
AltGr can be used with alphabetical keys alone. For example, AltGr and m, a
Greek lower-case letter mu is produced: 'µ'. AltGr and s produce a
scharfes s or esszet: 'ß'. As many European users would expect (because
it is marked on their keyboard), AltGr and 4 (or E depending on the keyboard
layout) produces a Euro sign, '€'.
Reported Issues or Problems
System Configuration Files (in /etc)
Most system configuration files, such as /etc/fstab, do not support
UTF-8. It is recommended to stick with the ASCII character set for these files.
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