Thursday, February 6, 2020

User-specific XKB configuration - part 1

The xkeyboard-config project is the repository for all XKB descriptions, or "keyboard layouts" as the layman would say. But languages are weird and thus xkeyboard-config contains an obscene amount of different layouts. And of course there are additional layouts that are more experimental than common [1].

The fault, as usual, lies with us (the pronoun, not the layout). XKB is weird and its flexible to the point of driving even bananas bananas but due to some historic accidents it's largely non-editable. All XKB files are installed in system folders and we all know the 11th commandment was "thou shalt not edit things in /usr/share". But, luckily, that is all about to change. Or rather: it has changed as of libxkbcommon 0.10.0, released Jan 20 2020.

xkeyboard-config provides two types of files. The ones that actually set up your keyboard layout and the ones that allow you to keep sane while doing so, despite your best efforts to the contrary.


Let's look at the first set of files. XKB uses "keycodes, compat, geometry, symbols, types", conveniently if unpronouncably called KcCGST. Keycodes map your "physical" scancode to an internal code-name. For example, your key with the digit 1 on it is AE01 (alphabetic key, row E from bottom, key number 1 from left). Then you map those keycodes into symbols (1 and !). This happens based on the key's type which defines the combination of modifiers to produce the symbols [2]. Compat is largely magic weird stuff (locking modifiers, pointer control) and geometry would let you draw a pretty picture of your keyboard if it was defined for your keyboard which it won't be.

To see the full keyboard layout simply run xkbcomp -xkb $DISPLAY - and marvel. xkeyboard-config keeps all these parts so your X server or Wayland compositor can load it at runtime depending on your layout.


But when it comes to actual layout selection we like our users enough that we don't make them handle KcCGST but rather provide them with RMLVO instead - "rules, models, layouts, variants, options". You select layout "us" and something converts this into the right components to actually load. Run setxkbmap -layout us -print to see this happening.

"layouts" is what you'd usually associate with a country (except politics is still a thing, so more weirdness here) and "variants" are variations of those. Layout "us" gives you QWERTY and "fr" gives you AZERTY but the "us(dvorak)" variant gives you whatever heresy dvorak applies to those physical keys. And of course, things don't stop there - options are tack-on thingies that do stuff. Like remapping caps lock to compose so you're less capable of shouting at me. Come to think of it, it should really be enabled by default for that reason. You can combine multiple options largely at-will. "models" are largely obsolete (except where they aren't) thanks to the Linux kernel evdev interface which makes all keyboard look the same. But they used to be a thing and maybe one day they'll make a comeback like bell bottom jeans. Disliked by everyone but some weirdos insist on using them.


Finally, we have rules and thus come to the core of the matter of this post. Rules are magic files that tell the various tools how to go from RMLVO to KcCGST. It's a weird format but it's quite understandable, just open /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev and have a looksie. It'll make you the popular kid at the next frat party.

Many many moons ago before the Y2K bug was even in its larvae stage, the idea was that you could configure all of those because every UNIX tool had to be more flexible than your yoga teacher. I'm unsure to what extent this was actually ever the case but around 2007-ish the old keyboard driver got deprecated and the evdev driver made it's grand entrance. And one side-effect of that was that things broke. evdev uses different keycodes, so all those users that copy-pasted unnecessary XKB configuration into their xorg.conf now had broken keys because they were applying the wrong rules. After whacking enough moles that we got in trouble with the RSPCA we started hardcoding the "evdev" ruleset everywhere. The xorg.conf option "XKBRules" became a noop and thus stopped breaking users' setups.

Except that it also stopped users from deploying their own rules files - something that probably didn't really matter anyway. This had some unintended side-effects though. First, to have a working custom XKB layout you basically had to get it merged upstream. Yes, you could edit the files locally but they'd just be overwritten next time you update the packages. Second, getting rid of hardcoded things is hard so we're stuck with the evdev ruleset for the forseeable future. This was the situation until, well, now.

User-specific rules and layouts

The new libxkbcommon release changes two things: it prepends $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/ to the lookup path for XKB rules (and other files). So any file in that path will be picked before the system paths. This makes it possible to have KcCGST files in your home directory and actually use them. This was somewhat possible before by passing the right flags to the various tools but now it's on by default - at least where libxkbcommon is used (Wayland).

Secondly, rules files now support an include statement. This means you can set your own rules and include system rules. Because everything is hardcoded to evdev this effectively means your new rule file will be $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/rules/evdev and have at least one line: ! include %S/rules/evdev. If you do just that, you get the evdev ruleset from the system installation path. And any lines you add before or after that line will be loaded. Have a look at the git commit for the details but the summary is that you'll have a rules file that looks like this:

$ cat $XDG_CONFIG_DIR/xkb/rules/evdev
! option                =       symbols
  custom:foo            =       +custom(foo)
  custom:bar            =       +custom(baz)

! include %S/evdev
This file will define the option->symbol mappings as above and then include the system-provided evdev rules file, i.e. it'll behave like before with those two added. To get those to do something, you need to have the actual symbols files:
$ cat $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/symbols/custom
partial alphanumeric_keys
xkb_symbols "foo" {
    key <TLDE> {        [      VoidSymbol ]       };

partial alphanumeric_keys
xkb_symbols "baz" {
    key <AB01> {        [      k, K ]       };

And voila, you can now use the XKB option "custom:foo" and/or "custom:bar" to remap your tilde or Z key. The rest is left to the reader as an exercise in creativity.

Remaining work

The libxkbcommon change was only the first part of the full feature. The remaining parts is to have libxkbcommon actually resolve XDG_CONFIG_HOME when running in gnome-shell which doesn't work right now thanks to secure_getenv() always returning NULL. That's an issue with gnome-shell in particular thanks to the rt-scheduler feature, enabled by default on Fedora already.

The second part, and harder, is to make the new options appear in the various graphical configuration tools. xkeyboard-config ships an XML file [3] that lists every possible combination with some human description for it. This XML file is used by the various tools directly but none of those tools support XML's XI:Include statements. So we'd either have to update all those tools to extend the parsing accordingly or, most likely a smarter long-term solution, write a wrapper library that provides a stable API to get at the same info. That way we can update the include paths under the hood without having to update every tool. Of course this requires every tool to update to the new library first, so, well, chicken, egg, usual problem. Anyway, we'll get there eventually.

[1] For example, I suspect a meetup of icelandic dvorak users doesn't qualify for a group discount.
[2] Each key has "levels" with one symbol each and modifiers that switch between those levels. Most keys have two levels - normal and shift. But there's a key type for EIGHT_LEVEL_ALPHABETIC_LEVEL_FIVE_LOCK and you can cry or laugh and both reactions are appropriate
[3] ask your grandparents about that, it's basically JSON for old people


  1. Wow, KCGST! That brought me back. Like most normal people, I have no intention of editing these files, but it's always good to know they have a competent handler!

  2. FYI KWin also sets SCHED_RR, see

  3. This is amazing. I used to have a xmodmap file which let me easily do some common unicode characters, and I've missed it very much.

  4. But how would I go converting a whole-keyboard .Xmodmap (FWIW, “xkbcomp -xkb $DISPLAY” does not print anything for me :D) that has a few variants (it swaps unshifted ` and Esc by default, and it can swap the 102nd key (normally Compose) with the CapsLock key (normally bound to some Unicode chars, this keyboard layout has no CapsLock), and if it does that, also bind Ctrl instead of Compose to CapsLock, and it normally has Alt on Win_L and Mode_switch on Alt_L and the alternative is Alt on Alt_L, Meta on Win_L and Mode_switch on Alt_R (normally Alt).

    I manage this layout in multiple variants (dot.Xmodmap for XFree86®, pre-evdev, xorgxrdp; dot.Xmodmap for with evdev, Linux¹ console, Windows NT/2k/XP/…, and recently even Windows 95/98) and now wish to create an xkb version for and especially Wayland users. (Might also do an MS-DOS version one day. ① BSD wscons implements most of it natively already…)

    So, basically, I don’t wish to build upon anything existing (excepting perhaps things like compat/xfree86 and especially mousekeys but not with Shift-Alt) but fully roll my own. The amount of findable documentation isn’t ideal… and with dot.Xmodmap, this is trivial — base layout is and the three variants can be done with a simple shell script (not yet committed) that swaps some keycodes/lines. Help welcome…

  5. Thanks, that should make it much easier fixing certain old games from GOG!

  6. Rules are magic files that tell the various tools how to go from RMLVO to KcCGST. It's a weird format but it's quite understandable, just open /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev and have a looksie. It'll make you the popular kid at the next frat party.

    My name is at the top of that file. Is that going to somehow boost my popularity even further if I go find a party at the nearest university?


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