Brno skyline

Diacritics are all of the small things that are added on, above, or below certain characters in various languages. Some examples include tildes (ñ), accents (á), or other marks (š). These marks are little hints that help you know how to pronounce a word properly (and they sometimes change the definition of a word entirely).

They are often skipped by non-native language speakers, and sometimes even by native speakers, but I have done my best to make a habit of including them when I can.

Pronounciation can change drastically with a certain mark. For example, a common Czech name is Tomaš. The š on the end makes a sh sound insead of a the normal sss sound.

In Spanish, the word for Spain is España. The ñ has a n sound followed by a yah sound. If you leave off the ñ, you end up with a sound like ana on the end instead of an-yah.

Leaving out diacritics can also lead to terrible results, such as a famous Spanish mistake:

  • Mi papá tiene cincuenta años (My Dad is fifty years old)
  • Mi papa tiene cincuenta anos (My potato has fifty anuses)

This could obviously lead to some confusion. 🤭

First attempts (failures)

At first, I found myself going to online character maps and I would copy/paste the character I wanted. Typing in Spanish quickly became painful with the constant back and forth to copy certain characters.

I knew there had to be a better way.

AltGr

After some research, I found that there are some keyboards with a special Alt key on the right side of the space bar called the AltGr key. It’s a special modifier key that lets you type characters that are not easy with your keyboard layout.

Luckily, you can tell your computer to pretend like you have an AltGr key to the right of the keyboard and you get access to all of the international characters via key combinations.

For Linux, you can run this in any terminal:

setxkbmap us -variant altgr-intl

I add this command in my ~/.config/i3/config for i3:

exec_always --no-startup-id "setxkbmap us -variant altgr-intl"

Most window managers give you the option to change the keyboard layout for your session in the window manager settings.

In GNOME, open Settings, click Region & Language, and click the plus (+) below the list of layouts. Choose English and then choose English (US, alt. intl.) from the list. You can switch from layout to layout in GNOME, but AltGr works well for me as a default.

Trying it out

Once you have AltGr enabled, here are some quick things to try:

  • AltGr + Shift + ~, release keys, press n: ñ
  • AltGr + ‘, release keys, press a: á
  • AltGr + Shift + ., release keys, press s: š
  • AltGr + s: ß

Take a look at AltGr on Wikipedia for lots more combinations.

Photo credit: naleag_deco on Flickr