The funny thing is the issue can be solved quite easily

UK Keyboard

If you’re a a QWERTY user and have got a laptop with a UK keyboard you’re probably in trouble when it comes to writing in languages other than English. You might even have thought along the lines of buying a new keyboard for this sole purpose but the funny thing is this issue can be solved in a really simple way.

You only need to know a few things about dead keys, Unicode characters and a little bit of geography I guess.

This five-minute read explains how to use your UK keyboard to write in Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French (AZERTY users) or Italian, and also shows how to type any possible, imaginable Unicode character including emoji and extinct alphabets too.

What is a dead key?

A dead key is a modifier key on a computer keyboard that allows to attach diacritics to specific letters. So for example the letters a, e, i, o, and u can be turned into á, é, í, ó and ú respectively with the help of a dead key.

The basic UK keyboard layout doesn’t have any dead keys, however the UK Extended layout provides you with the AltGr key in order to type acute-accented letters as well as with the ` key for writing grave-accented letters. A variety of indigenous languages spoken in the UK — Welsh, Gaelic, Scots, Irish and Cornish — are supported this way.

The US equivalent is the US International keyboard layout, which is the multilingual variation of the standard US keyboard layout.

Having said that here’s how you’d modify the letter a on a multilingual, UK Extended keyboard.

Letter Dead key combination Diacritic
á AltGr + a Acute accent
à ` then a Grave accent
â AltGr + 6 then a Circumflex
ä AltGr + 2 then a Diaeresis
ã AltGr + # then a Tilde

This is the uppercase counterpart:

Letter Dead key combination Diacritic
Á AltGr + ⇧ Shift + a Acute accent
À ` then ⇧ Shift + a Grave accent
 AltGr + 6 then ⇧ Shift + a Circumflex
Ä AltGr + 2 then ⇧ Shift + a Diaeresis
à AltGr + # then ⇧ Shift + a Tilde

Enable the UK Extended keyboard layout

Of course, make sure to first enable the UK Extended keyboard layout in order to be able to type the diacritic variations of a letter as the ones shown above. Basically if using a Debian-based distribution, the XKBVARIANT option must be set to "extd" in the /etc/default/keyboard file, as it is shown next.

$ cat /etc/default/keyboard
# KEYBOARD CONFIGURATION FILE

# Consult the keyboard(5) manual page.

XKBMODEL="pc105"
XKBLAYOUT="gb"
XKBVARIANT="extd"
XKBOPTIONS=""

BACKSPACE="guess"

Probably the simplest way to apply the new settings is to reboot the OS.

That’s it!

The keyboard settings are stored in /etc/default/keyboard on a typical Debian-based GNU/Linux distribution: Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Kali Linux, MX Linux, Linux Mint, PureOS, and many other popular distros.

Composing Unicode characters on LXDE

As said before, UK Extended dead keys come to the rescue to help you write in most Romance languages yet you may find yourself unable to type specific, unique characters only available in few languages. What to do if a particular, rare character can’t be found on a keyboard for the language you’re writing in? If that’s the case you may want to compose that one Unicode character by using its hexadecimal value.

To do so just type Ctrl + ⇧ Shift + u followed by the hexadecimal value of the character you want, and finally type Intro as shown in the following examples.

Character Hexadecimal Description
ß df German letter ß, also called Eszett or scharfes S
𐄝 1011d Aegean number five hundred
🐱 1f431 A cat face
4e80 Han character for turtle or tortoise
2328 Keyboard

This works for me on a Debian-based distro with the LXDE desktop environment.

Finally, if you’re a Spanish-speaking writer as I am, here’s how to compose a few more handy special characters.

Character Hexadecimal Description
¡ a1 Opening exclamation mark
¿ bf Opening question mark

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