How to create a custom keyboard layout for X.Org on Ubuntu

This blog post gives an overview of the steps needed for creating and installing a new custom keyboard layout for X.Org (X11). The steps outlined here have been tested on Ubuntu Karmic and Ubuntu Lucid, but they should work on other Linux systems as well with minor modifications. The designer of a custom keyboard layout can assign (almost) Unicode characters and other keyboard symbols (such as F1 or Insert) arbitrarily to keys and key combinations (with modifiers like Shift and Ctrl). You are encouraged to create a custom keyboard layout for yourself if some useful symbols are missing from your favorite keyboard layout, or you can work with your own custom key mapping much faster with the default layouts, or you need a blend of two layouts with AltGr (right Alt) as the modifier key for selecting the alternative layout for 1 keypress.

All the keyboard layouts are managed by the XKB subsystem. For simplicity, we assume that you run both your X server and clients (at least GNOME and the setxkbmap command) on the same machine. The keyboard layouts are defined in the text files /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/*, e.g. the file /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us contains the definition of the US English keyboard layout (and a few of its the variants). Edit one of these files (us. in the example) as root, adding your entry, e.g.

partial alphanumeric_keys modifier_keys
xkb_symbols "my_layout" {
    // A comment here.
    name[Group1]= "USA - my layout";
    key <....> { ... };

As soon as you save your changes, you are able to load the new layout with

$ setxkbmap 'us(my_layout)'

Please note that the command above is a bit dangerous, because if you load an incomplete or bad layout, you may have to log out (using the mouse) and log in again to make your keyboard useful. Another option is to copy the following command (which restores the US English keyboard layout) with its trailing newline to the clipboard before changing the layout, and then pasting it to a terminal emulator when things go wrong:

$ setxkbmap us

You can load multiple layouts and then use GNOME's keyboard switching applet to switch between them. For example, the following command loads the French layout by default, with an option to switch to your custom layout, and the default English layout as well:

$ setxkbmap 'fr,us(my_layout),us'

Once your layout is ready, you may want to make it selectable from the GNOME keyboard preferences dialog box (get it from System / Preferences / Keyboard / Layouts / Add, or start it with gnome-keyboard-properties, and then select Layouts / Add). To do so, you have to add your layout to the files /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/*.{xml,lst}, close the GNOME keyboard preferences dialog box, reopen it, and then add a new layout which is yours. There is no need to log out or to restart the system. Ubuntu Karmic and Ubuntu Lucid look at evdev.xml and evdev.lst (as reported by running $ strace -e open -o key.log gnome-keyboard-properties), other systems might look at some other files, especially base.xml and base.lst.

As an example, see http://code.google.com/p/pts-mini-gpl/source/browse/trunk/pts-magyar/us.pts_magyar.sh, which is an installer shell script, which installs the us(pts_magyar) keyboard layout, modifying files /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us and /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/{evdev,base}.{xml,lst}. Here is how to install it easily:

$ wget -O- https://raw.githubusercontent.com/pts/pts-magyar/master/us.pts_magyar.sh | bash

FYI It is possible to load the config files from /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols on one machine, and to apply it on any X server (as identified by the $DISPLAY variable). To do so, run this on the machine with the config file:

setxkbmap us -print | xkbcomp - "$DISPLAY"

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