Skip to main content

Custom keyboard layout

Table of contents

I love the US keyboard layout for programming - but because I live in Switzerland I have to write german texts from time to time.

The german umlauts ä,ö and ü are not present in the standard US keyboard layout. There is a US-International keyboard layout which actually has these keys on it. However, they are not located very convenient - the ä for example is mapped to Alt Gr + Q whereas on the (Swiss) German keyboard layout it is located next to enter.

It would be impossible to ever use a Swiss German keyboard again if I would train myself to the US international keyboard layout. I therefore had the idea, to tweak the US keyboard like this:

My custom keyboard layout

(Modifications in blue - based on "English: United States keyboard layout " via Wikimedia Commons.)

OK, let's do this!

In most Linux desktop environments, the magic of keyboard layouts happens in xkb - the X Keyboard Extension.

The key maps are located in individual files - usually in /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/.

After reading in the xkb docs, I understood enough of the configuration format. I copied the US keyboard and replaced the definitions of the affected keys with my customized versions and put it into a file called /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us_umlauts.

// [...]
key  {	[ semicolon,	colon,		odiaeresis,	Odiaeresis	]};
key  {	[ apostrophe,	quotedbl,	adiaeresis,	Adiaeresis	]};
key  {	[ bracketleft,	braceleft,	udiaeresis,	Udiaeresis	]};
// [...]

Checkout this gist for the full us_umlauts file

Finally, I had to set it as default keyboard layout for the X-server - which can be achieved by editing the file /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/00-keyboard.conf and set the option XkbLayout:

Option "XkbLayout" "us_umlauts"

Checkout this gist for my 00-keyboard.conf file

After I logged out and in again, everything worked as expected - at least since I use Xfce.

Before using Xfce I used Gnome 3 - and Gnome does it's own magic with keyboard layouts. I could not yet figure out a permanent solution for Gnome - but if you do, let me know!

A Note on Windows

It is possible to create custom keyboard layouts on Windows as well (this is especially useful if you are in the habit of using a customised layout).

Download the free tool from Microsoft called Keyboard Layout Creator 1.4. I find the software not intuitive at all - but you can test and see the result immediately. When you're done, build a setup package and install it. This solution is quite nice since it allows you to backup and reuse the setup package on any other Windows PC.

You can also download my configuration or the installer for my customised layout (both without warranty!).