All you need to know about KBD keyboard files (and nothing more)

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It's been a few years now since I switched to Wayland. I use Sway, a compositor based on wlroots, and apart from the sporadic broken Wayland application (easy fix: force XWayland) and Java application (easy fix: set _JAVA_AWT_WM_NONREPARENTING=1), it's mostly been great times.

I have also been a long time user of UK International Keyboard, and that is the layout I know by heart and use on all physical keyboards. This layout builds upon the standard UK keyboard to enable you to type ṽårìóǘş kïņḑş õf åçĉëñţş äņḑ şẙḿbôĺş not found on the keyboard itself. This is achieved through dead keys: special keyboard sequences which enable a modified state for the next key you type, allowing to make combined characters without pressing a large number of keys all at once. For example, to produce the character ñ, I use AltGr-~ - which is the "dead tilde" combination -, and then I type n separately.

Lately, I came across the issue of typing Greek characters, for maths and engineering-related applications. For the first few hours of work, I made do with simply having a character table handy and copy-pasting as needed. But soon enough, I realized this was no long term solution. Soon thereafter, my generalization instinct was so kind as to make me notice that hey, it would be good to have a general way to configure the keyboard to type any symbols I might like... using dead keys!

Starting from UK International Keyboad (from now on kbukint), I tried to go through adding some sequences.


X Keyboard Extension, or XKB (right?), is the way X applications have been handling keyboard for a few decades. While I can't find any historic description of how it came to be (and I'm too young to just know), specification documents date as back as 1996, suggesting that similar non-standard ways of doing the same thing must have been around for some time at that point.

What does Wayland have to do with all of this? Well, while Wayland doesn't have any official way to handle keyboards and keymaps, XKB is what they suggest to use, and in particular, all of the Wayland implementations I've seen tend to use xkbcommon, a quite modern implementation which is reasonably compatible: it uses the same keyboard data distribution that comes with X11.

The upside of this is obvious: we have the same data format! So almost 30 years of experience with real-world keyboard layouts is still here at our disposal to use with xkbcommon. The downside is a bit more subtle: we have the same data format. Yup. As while it works just fine, it can be rather... peculiar. To see a couple of examples:

  • It fiercely promotes include hell. Ok, this one is kind of obvious. Keyboards all look very similar, so it's understandable that efforts were made to reduce duplication. These efforts reached their objective... by paying a steep price.
  • The files are not very self-referential. That is, looking at them - both names and contents - you really struggle to get what they are doing. And as, especially nowadays, those files are used by 4 different libraries and compatibility layers to do all kinds of stuff, it can be a bit difficult to find the right documentation.

XKB + Wayland (just for fun)

Now that I have scared away the less corageous dwellers, let's take a look at how a keyboard definition works. We're going to take a very simple approach: let's suppose we press the key A on our keyboard. How does the focused program know to type the character a?

You can find the long version here, but the bottom line is that a Wayland compositor (or server) will communicate with a client over a wl_keyboard Wayland object. This will:

  • inform the client upon the current keyboard layout (in XKB format) on connection, as well as any changes down the road
  • forward the raw keyboard events, so that the client can run them through their preferred keyboard library (such as xkbcommon!)

How does XKB work?

With those premises, then, I argue that writing a custom keyboard layout is akin to finding out how xkbcommon and similar libraries (i.e. implementations of XKB) work: since it's their job to turn raw keystrokes into characters according to keyboard layout files, our problem is (in a nutshell) understanding how to correctly instruct them to to their job.

XKB abstractions

To achieve that, we have to learn about a few abstractions. Those abstractions correspond to actual files residing in /usr/share/X11/xkb (further paths in this article will be relative to this one), in directories called with their lowercase name:

  • Keycodes are a simple correspondance between raw input events and X key events. In modern Linux, the evdev keycodes are the most commonly used, as evdev is the preferred way to expose input events to userspace (curiously, before feeding evdev scancodes to XKB, you need to increment their value by 8; that is, the mapping contained in keycodes/evdev expects you to do that. I do not know who made that choice or why, and if you do know please leave a comment!)
  • Types are kind of abstruse, but in a nutshell, they define how the current XKB state is utilized when a keycode gets translated into a symbol. This will be much clearer later on, but for now keep in mind that each keycode is associated to one or more symbols (example: keycode for A → symbols a and A on most keyboard layouts), and types are ways to determine how to decide which symbol to pick when there is more than one available for a given keycode (example: to pick between a and A, the Shift or Caps Lock modifiers are used on most keyboard layouts)
  • Symbols, also called keysyms, are (finally) what gets emitted following a keypress. Symbol files contain big tables describing what the combination of each state (more on this later) and keycode should be translated into a symbol - once again, taking types into consideration. In fact, symbols by themselves are what could be reasonably described as "keymaps". Groups are also a thing here: they simply are alternative sets of symbols available in a keymap (I'm guessing this is a relic from times where changing a keymap on-the-fly was not a thing), and you can have at most 4 of them for each keymap
  • Geometry. I didn't bother understanding this one in detail, as xkbcommon describes it as: "there were very few geometry definitions available, and while xkbcommon was responsible for parsing this insanely complex format, it never actually did anything with it". It contains information such as keyboard size, where the keys are placed, the color of LEDs, and the radius of keycap corners (I know it sounds like a joke, but go check for yourself). This is documented as only being useful for programs that show you a graphical representation of your keyboard layout
  • Compat and rules. These are incredibly specific, and I will not go in much detail. Compat thingies (how else would I define them?) define various compatibility things of assorted type, such as Caps Lock locking, LEDs, and funky keyboard and platform-dependant stuff. Rules define ways to put all the other abstractions together in various funky ways and with manual overrides called options.

The translation process

So, the translation process, as I mentioned before, is conceptually pretty simple:

(keycode, state) → symbol (→ UTF-8 representation, if must print)

Our next step, as you can imagine, is to find out exactly what this state is, and how it plays with keycodes to produce symbols. So far, looking at the abstractions, we have gathered this information:

  • Depending on the type of a symbol, the state is interpreted differently
  • Groups can outright change the set of symbols we are working with

To paint a full picture, we actually need to introduce one more abstraction. Some keycodes, instead of resulting in a symbol, result in a change of level. The level then combines with the type of a keycode mapping to select which symbol is emitted. We can now better describe our A key example: the Level 1 symbol for the key A is a, while the Level 2 symbol is A. You guessed it: in most keyboard layout, you go from Level 1 to Level 2 temporarily with the Shift key, or in a latching way (but only for alphabetic characters!) with the Caps Lock key. Commonly, the AltGr (aka Right Alt) key brings you to Level 3, and the combination of Shift and AltGr to Level 4.

Before diving into this I was not really familiar with the concept of keyboard levels, but it seems that it's actually the common terminology. It makes sense historically: typewriters had letter heads that had literally characters on multiple levels, and you shifted (as in, moved a big chunk of the mechanism) to higher levels to print different characters.

Let's put it together:

  • (keycode, state) → symbol (→ UTF-8 representation, if must print)
  • state = (active group, active shift level)
  • So, in substance, the emitted symbol depends on the received keycode (i.e. what key was stroked), the active group (sorry, we'll skip this one entirely for this article), and the active shift level (depending on the type, determined e.g. by Shift, Caps Lock, Num Lock, etc.)

A full example: printing the letter "A"

Let's take the "gb" symbol map into consideration now, and to go back once again to the same example, let's see how that translates our A keypress into the uppercase letter "A". We finally get to take a look at the file format! So first of all, let's find the "gb" keymap in symbols/gb and open it.

The first thing we might notice is that in the same file we have multiple xkb_symbols directives. These are not different groups, but completely separate symbol maps! It might be useful to know how the different maps inside the same files are addressed. It is rather simple: file(map). So, the first keymap inside the gb file, which is called basic (line 4), is referred to gb(basic).

The second thing we notice is that the gb(basic) keymap is actually pretty short, and doesn't include most of the keys we expect to find on an English keyboard. The most attentive observers, however, will have noticed an include directive (line 9), and it does exactly what you think it does: it includes stuff from a different map. In our case, the include reads latin, and you might notice that we have no (map) part in our file(map) map name. This just means "include the default latin map".

So let us open the symbols/latin file now, and let's take a look at the latin(basic) map - which is the one marked with default (line 3). Finally, we spot our A (line 39)! It reads:

    key <AC01>  { [         a,          A,           ae,           AE ] };

Let's dissect it. key <AC01> means that we are defining the mapping for keycode <AC01>. This keycode corresponds to the physical key immediately to the right of the Caps Lock key on ISO and ANSI QWERTY keyboards. Curly braces are then { opened, and after that, square braces are [ opened as well. We then have a comma-separated list of symbols: a, A, ae, AE. These correspond to the four different levels allowed by the type (more on it later). So our symbol of interest A is a Level 2 letter. Note that this does not correspond to their UTF-8 (or any other encoding) representation: it is merely a coincidence (or rather, in this case, a convenience), that the a symbol is normally rendered as "a" - and we don't need to go far to find a counterexample: the symbol ae normally renders to "æ", and not "ae". Finally, both brackets are ]} closed.

So, we pressed Shift-A, and our XKB library is good and well-functioning and upon receiving the corresponding scan codes it knows to pick the Level 2 symbol for <AC01>. How is this symbol converted to its UTF-8 (or, again, any other encoding) representation, assuming that you are e.g. typing stuff into a text editor? Pretty simple: XKB libraries have big lists of symbols, and big look up tables to help with parsing a "a" in the keymap file to the XKB_KEY_A constant value in the big list. And obviously, they have functions such as xkb_state_key_get_utf8() to take advantage of all of the above in a locale-sensitive manner.

One more detail to go through to finish up with this example. We can actually rewrite the above line as:

    name[Group1] = "Default group";
    key <AC01>  {
        type = "FOUR_LEVEL_ALPHABETIC",
        symbols[Group1] = [a, A, ae, AE]

What we did in this "long form" version was to make the type and group explicit. Two interesting things on these matters:

  • The type, if not specified like above, it is automatically determined. Here is how xkbcommon does it (archaeology: the copyright note bears the year 1994 and the name Silicon Graphics Computer Systems, Inc.). Basically, it depends upon whether you have 1, 2, or 4 levels defined, and whether level pairs 1-2 and 3-4 (when applicable) define lowercase-UPPERCASE pairs of characters. This is make Caps Lock work as a permanent shift for letters, but not for numbers. This document, which was otherwise quite helpful, only proposes unexhaustive rules which only deal with up to two levels per keycode
  • Groups need to be defined beforehand (i.e. inside a keymap {scope}, but outside key {scopes}) and given a name, if at all used.

To wrap up the example, a quick recap:

  • We pressed the Shift-A keys on the keyboard
  • A Linux driver for the keyboard picked those up, and emitted them to userspace through evdev using their key codes (to be pedantic, the driver emitted a scan code, and it was the converted to a key code through a process that can be tapped into from userspace using udev)
  • Our XKB library received all that and mapped it to keycode <AC01>, inspected its type, decided that Shift means Level 2, and picked the Level 2 symbol A
  • Our userspace application asked the library to convert that to UTF-8, and the library proposed the character "A" for that

Types in-depth

Actually, in-depth would mean an insane amount of research and write-up. So let's just stick to a selection of the actually interesting stuff (ONE_LEVEL, TWO_LEVEL, ALPHABETIC, and FOUR_LEVEL_SEMIALPHABETIC) and see how these work.

Starting from the first three, defined in types/basic:

    type "ONE_LEVEL" {
        modifiers = None;
        map[None] = Level1;
        level_name[Level1]= "Any";

    type "TWO_LEVEL" {
        modifiers = Shift;
        map[Shift] = Level2;
        level_name[Level1] = "Base";
        level_name[Level2] = "Shift";

    type "ALPHABETIC" {
        modifiers = Shift + Lock;
        map[Shift] = Level2;
        map[Lock] = Level2;
        level_name[Level1] = "Base";
        level_name[Level2] = "Caps";

I think most of it is very much self-explicative: the types map different modifiers (Shift, Lock) to different levels. The only interesting note is the difference between TWO_LEVEL and ALPHABETIC: the former ignores Caps Lock, which is consistent with the fact that Caps Lock doesn't work on numbers.

The last one is defined in types/extra:

        modifiers = Shift + Lock + LevelThree;
        map[None] = Level1;
        map[Shift] = Level2;
        map[Lock] = Level2;
        map[LevelThree] = Level3;
        map[Shift+LevelThree] = Level4;
        map[Lock+LevelThree] = Level3;
        map[Shift+Lock+LevelThree] = Level4;
        preserve[Lock+LevelThree] = Lock;
        preserve[Shift+Lock+LevelThree] = Lock;
        level_name[Level1] = "Base";
        level_name[Level2] = "Shift";
        level_name[Level3] = "Alt Base";
        level_name[Level4] = "Shift Alt";

This one is a little more involved, but not much when you filter out the noise (such as level_name which is just aesthetics for tooling). First of all, we see something called a virtual modifier called LevelThree. It's usually AltGr, and we will see later how to redefine it for our symbol maps. Then, going to the juice: levels 1 and 2 work exactly the same as in the ALPHABETIC type; LevelThree is for level 3 (duh); and Shift + LevelThree is for level 4.

Then we see something peculiar: level 3 and four are also defined as Lock+LevelThree and Shift+Lock+LevelThree. Why? Well, because the mappings define exact matches. Since we want AltGr to work even when Caps Lock is active, we have to explicitly say that's ok. But then this poses a problem: modifiers get consumed when they match with a mapping. Since Caps Lock is also used by what are called "internal capitalization routines" (about which I could not find any information), and presumably by some applications, we want it to go through after a match. Hence the preserve directives: we define the same matches we had in the map directives, and we say that, for those matches, we want the Lock modifier to go through.

Before wrapping up this section, let's go through how automatic type selection is performed. As I previously linked, xkbcommon provides us with the answer for something that (as far as I can see) lacks explicit documentation. We find out that the selection depends upon three variables: the number of defined levels, the case (as in upper or lower) of the symbols, and whether any the symbols on any on the levels is defined keymap or not. We notice a pretty blatant violation of abstraction here: why would XKB care about character case, when symbols are abstract things that conceptually predate characters in any encoding or locale? I suspect the answer is simply "because it made writing symbol maps a bit nicer". On to it:

#lvls case num resulting type meaning
≤1 any any ONE_LEVEL Modifiers ignored
2 xX any ALPHABETIC Caps/Shift = L2
2 ?? yes KEYPAD Num = L2
2 ?? no TWO_LEVEL Shift = L2, Shift + Num = L1
≤4 xXxX any FOUR_LEVEL_ALPHABETIC Caps/Shift = L2, Three = L3, Caps/Shift + Three = L4
≤4 xX?? any FOUR_LEVEL_SEMIALPHABETIC Caps/Shift = L2, Three = L3, Shift + Three = L4
≤4 ???? yes FOUR_LEVEL_KEYPAD Num/Shift = L2, Shift + Num = L1, Three = L3, Three + Shift + Num = L3, Num/Shift + Three = L4
≤4 ??? no FOUR_LEVEL Shift = L2, Three = L3, Shift + Three = L4
any any any no type idea, sorry

This is not all that interesting. I decided to include it because it seems that the only other place where it was documented, apart from here, was the source code of existing XKB implementation.

Picking a modifier for LevelThree

We have seen in the types we examined that the level three modifier is... LevelThree. If you have never seen the LevelThree key on your keyboard, look more carefully. If you still haven't found it, look eve- I'm just joking. Of course there is no LevelThree key on your keyboard.

The idea is that Shift is pretty standard, but LevelThree, you may want to pick depending on your keyboard type and layout. For that, XKB has a mechanism called "virtual modifiers". They are actually defined in an unnecessarily perverse way, needing two separate (but related) directives in symbol files to be bound to an actual modifier key, and needing to be re-declared in type files where they are used.

Luckily, we don't have to go through any of that: the XKB data distribution pre-declares most of the stuff you will ever need, and conveniently provides the symbols/level{2,3,5} files, containing the correct directives to use various keys as Level 3 modifiers. For example, if you include level3(ralt_switch) in your symbol map, then AltGr will become your LevelThree. As an alternative, level3(alt_switch) is also available, imitating Macs (both Alts shift to Level 3). And so on.

Dead keys

Dead keys are, simply put, symbols which don't have a character representation; instead, they are meant to be combined with other symbols to produce more complex sequences. man 5 Compose from libX11 offers some information, and the xkbcommon documentation some more, but, simply put, we just need to emit them in symbol maps, and then consume them in a Compose file.

The syntax for compose files is as follows:

<dead_grave> <A> : "À" Agrave

The sequence is defined before a : colon, and the resulting emitted UTF-8 character and symbol after it. The UTF-8 character can also be omitted, and in this case the implementation will decide how to behave (usually depending on the locale, according to libX11).

An exhaustive list of dead key symbols (grave_*) can be found in the source code of xkbcommon (as always!), and you can find existing Compose files on your local system in /usr/share/X11/locale. Here you will find a compose.dir file, which matches locales with Compose files. For example, using the localectl, I find out my locale is en_GB.UTF-8. A quick grep through compose.dir quickly reveals that my compose file is (like for most other locales) en_US.UTF-8/Compose. That's the file that libX11 and xkbcommon and all other compliant XKB implementations will consult for key composition.

Back to the beginning: Greek letters

Let's remind ourselves why we walked this path, climbed the mountain, endured the snow, and read so much documentation and source code... ah, yes, right, I wanted to type some Greek letters. Well, this is easy with our current knowledge:

  • Change a symbol map, adding a way to emit dead_greek (or conceptually, and other dead key symbol - it's just a name)
  • Add Compose entries for the Greek letters.

Looking at /usr/share/X11/locale/en_US.UTF-8/Compose we actually get a surprise: half of the job has already been done for us. All the Greek letters are there, both lowercase and uppercase, in the form <dead_greek> <some_latin_letter>. Then it's just a matter to take the symbol map I use, kbukint, and adding a way to emit <dead_greek>. I pick AltGr + G for that, so let's replace the Level 3 symbol NoSymbol with dead_greek:

    key <AC05> { [ g, G, dead_greek, NoSymbol ] };

And with this, we wrap up. Αντιο σας!

Further reading

Header image by Dmitry Nosachev, licensed as CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

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