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International Keyboard Configuration: Using Multi key


This document is about how I set up a computer running Debian GNU/Linux with a standard US keyboard to be able to input a wide range of characters necessary for typing in other languages.

To anyone who uses a keyboard to type in German, French, Spanish, or a range of other languages which contain diacritical marks it is very important to be able to type these characters (actually they are graphemes, not characters). 

Configuring the Keyboard in Debian

The easiest way to configure a keyboard to support international characters is to reconfigure the X server and select the
intl keyboard layout:

dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xfree86

The other way (perhaps this is actually more simple) is to edit
/etc/X11/XF86Config-4 and enter intl for the XkbLayout option:

Section "InputDevice"
        Identifier      "Generic Keyboard"
        Driver          "keyboard"
        Option          "CoreKeyboard"
        Option          "XkbRules"      "xfree86"
        Option          "XkbModel"      "pc102"
        Option          "XkbLayout"     "intl"

To configure the console (non-X) keyboard install the console-data package if it is not already installed or, if it is, reconfigure it:

apt-get install console-data                 
dpkg-reconfigure console-data

For U.S. keyboards I recommend selecting:

qwerty - US American - Standard - US International (ISO 8859-15)


Producing Graphemes using Multi-key vs. Deadkey

The terminology related to keymaps is a little bit strange but there are a couple of terms worth learning.  One is the term
symbol.  You would probably guess that a symbol is a thing one sees typed on a screen but this is wrong.  A symbol is a sequence of one or more key presses which produce a grapheme which is the thing one sees on one's monitor.  Because not all symbols produce graphemes they are called dead symbols.  For example if you ever chose the U.S. International keyboard layout on Windows machine you would notice that pressing the <quoteright> key (the apostrophe key) by itself produces no graphemes.  Instead, if you press one of a number of keys after having pressed quoteright the behaviour of that key is altered.  So pressing <quoteright><e> produces not the grapheme e but  rather e-acute, .  What happend was that under the U.S. International layout in Windows the symbol associated with the <quoteright> gets changed from apostrophe to dead acute.  Note that the symbol to produce apostrophe has not disappeared.  It is changed to <quoteright><spacebar>. 

Many people who need to type international characters do not like the behavior of this U.S. International layout because it is annoying to always have to type <quoteright><spacebar> when one wants to type an apostrophe, or <shift>-<quoteright><spacebar> to type a double quote.

Enter Multi-key

Fortunately there is a much better way to produce international characters which not only avoids the drawbacks of of the deadkey approach but also extends the possible number of characters much further.  This approach creates a new special key called Multi-key which is usually assigned to either the right-Alt key or to the right-Windows key if there is one.

Just as the spacebar functions as a special key which combines with other keys so does Multi-key.  But Multi-key is even more than this.  Multi-key acts more like a special toggle switch.  For example to type e-acute using Multi-key one types <rightalt><quoteright><e>.  Note that unlike with the shift key one does not have to simultaneously press Multi-key and the consecutive key at the same time. 

Following is a table of keys with associated symbol names and example graphemes which they produce.

Key Name key
with shift
with multi
with multi + shift

quoteleft asciitilde dead_grave, dead_tilde
` ~ àÀèÈùÙìÌòÒ ãÃñÑ
paragraph, section
<!><!> - <p> - <s>
1 !        ¡             ¶        §
5 percent    
5 %    
6 asciicircum   dead_circumflex
6 ^   âÂêÊîÎôÔûÛ
9 parenleft   dead_breve
9 (   ăĂ®ğĞ

copyright, section sign, EuroSign (some apps)

<c> - <s> - <x>
0 )    ©      §      €  

EuroSign (some apps), yen, sterling

<e> - <l> -  <y>
= +    €        ¥        £ # ¯][

Eszett - Scharfes-S
s S               ß  
semicolon colon dead_ogonek ???  
; :    
quoteright quotedbl dead_acute dead_diaeresis (umlaut,  dieresis)
' " áÁéÉŕŔýÝúÚíÍóÓśŚĺĹźŹćĆńŃ äÄëËïÏöÖüÜÿŸ
comma less dead_cedilla dead_caron
, < ąĄçÇęĘŗįĮŗŖųŲşŞģĢķĶļĻņŅ čČěĚřŘťŤšŠďĎľĽžŽňŇ
period greater dead_abovedot dead_circumflex
. > ċĊėĖṫṪıİṗṖṡṠḋḊḟḞġĠżŻḃḂṁṀ âÂêÊûÛîÎôÔ
slash question cent, dead_hook dead_hook
Below are some possible keys that Mutli_key can be assigned to, along with a few other symbols these keys may have (in no particular order).
RALT Alt_R Meta_R Mode_switch Multi_key
LWIN Super_L      
RWIN Super_R Multi_key    

If you are ever curious about the inner workings of keyboard layouts you can look at some of the configuration files which are used to associate various physical keyboard types with different keyboard layouts.

/etc/X11/xkb/rules/xfree86 for a full list of physical keyboard types.  Here is an example section from this file:

model       layout          symbols
pc102         us             us(pc102)
pc102         en_US       en_US(pc102)
pc102         intl             us(pc102compose)
pc102         euro           us(pc102euro)
pc104         us              us(pc104)
pc104         en_US       en_US(pc104)
pc104         intl             us(pc104compose)
pc105         us              us(pc105)

In the symbols column above the values us and en_US refer to
/etc/X11/xkb/symbols/us and  /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/en_US.  In those files we find the entries corresponding to pc102, pc102compose, pc104, pc104compose, etc.

/etc/X11/xkb/rules/xfree86 contains names of keyboard models and mappings of layouts to symbol sets.  Symbol sets are defined in: /etc/X11/xkb/symbols

First identify a physical keyboard type.  Find it in the rules file and see what layouts are available for it.  Normally the symbol sets with the name "compose" in them link to symbol sets in /etc/X11/xkb/symbols which assign Multi_key to either RALT or RWIN (and of course you could change this if you want.  For example some people prefer assigning Multi_key to LWIN).

If you want to see all the possible symbols that can be mapped to a key in all the different keyboard layouts (kind of cool to see), try this:

grep -ri -A1 <keyname> /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/  | less

where <keyname> is something like AC02

or you can use a symbol name like "eurosign" too see the various keys that the euro symbol might be assigned to:

grep -ri -B1 eurosign /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/  | less

In /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/us and other files Multi_key gets assigned according the the keyboard type and layout selected from /etc/X11/xkb/rules/xfree86.  To decide which layout is best to use have a look at /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/us and see what key is being mapped to Multi_key:

xkb_symbols "pc102compose" {
    include "us(pc101compose)"
    key <LSGT> {        [      less,    greater         ]       };

xkb_symbols "pc101compose" {
    include "us(generic101)"
    key <LALT> {        [       Alt_L,  Meta_L          ]       };
    key <RALT> {        [       Multi_key               ]       };

Here we see that pc102compose assigns only one symbol itself and then includes everything from the pc101compose assignment.  In the pc101compose assignment we see that Multi_key gets assigned to RALT.  If you choose pc104compose (by selecting pc104/intl for model/layout) you can see Multi_key gets assigned to RWIN (just look at the entry in /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/us).

By knowing the important symbols and where and how they get assigned one can see how assignments  can be easily made whichever way one wants.

This is not  the end however.  The applications one uses must be able to support these graphemes.   This Perl statement will print out a range of special graphemes which is useful to see of the font in your terminal can handle them:

perl -e 'for$i(160..255){printf"%c%c",$i,($i%16==15)?10:32}'

Unfortunately many of the default fonts used by applications still do not support these graphemes.  For example, in order to get xterm and rxvt to display (most of) these graphemes one can assign the fonts in
~/.Xdefaults like so:

XTerm*font: -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal-*-*-130-*-*-c-*-iso8859-15
XTerm*VT100*font2: -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal-*-*-70-*-*-c-*-iso8859-15
XTerm*VT100*font3: -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal-*-*-100-*-*-c-*-iso8859-15
XTerm*VT100*font4: -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal-*-*-120-*-*-c-*-iso8859-15
XTerm*VT100*font5: -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal-*-*-140-*-*-c-*-iso8859-15
XTerm*VT100*font6: -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal-*-*-200-*-*-c-*-iso8859-15

Regarding Locales

Locales are another component in the language/grapheme set puzzle.  One way to reconfigure and/or set the default locale for your system is to run:

dpkg-reconfigure locales

(Make sure you have locales installed.  Installing localeconf is a good idea also.)

I recommend using ISO-8859-1 or


"Those foreign diacritical marks ("accents")",

"Special symbols",