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Locales are used in GNU/Linux to define which language the user uses. As the locales define the character sets being used as well, setting up the correct locale is especially important if the language contains non-ASCII characters.

Locale names are defined using the following format:


1 Enabling necessary locales

Before a locale can be used on the system, it has to be enabled first. To list all available locales, use:

$ locale -a

To enable a locale, uncomment the name of the locale in the file /etc/locale.gen. This file contains all the available locales that can be used on the system. Revert the process to disable a locale. After the necessary locales are enabled, the system needs to be updated with the new locales:

# locale-gen

To display the locales now currently in use, use:

$ locale
Tip: Though it's most likely that just one language is used use on your computer, it can be helpful or even necessary to enable other locales as well. If you're running a multi-user system with users that do not speak en_US, their individual locale should at least be supported by your system.

1.1 US English example

First uncomment the following locales in /etc/locale.gen:

en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8

Then update the system as root:

# locale-gen

2 Setting system-wide locale

To define the system-wide locale used on the system, set LANG in locale.conf:

Note: /etc/locale.conf does not exist by default; it has to be created manually.

An advanced example configuration would be:

# Enable UTF-8 with Australian settings.

# Keep the default sort order (e.g. files starting with a '.'
# should appear at the start of a directory listing.)

# Set the short date to YYYY-MM-DD (test with "date +%c")

To use them, the locales need to be specified in locale.gen and generated using the locale-gen command:

en_AU.UTF-8 UTF-8
en_DK.UTF-8 UTF-8
en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8
# locale-gen

They will take effect after rebooting the system and will be set for individual sessions at login.

3 Setting fallback locales

Programs which use gettext for translations respect the LANGUAGE option in addition to the usual variables. This allows users to specify a list of locales that will be used in that order. If a translation for the preferred locale is unavailable, another from a similar locale will be used instead of the default. For example, an Australian user might want to fall back to British rather than US spelling:

export LANGUAGE="en_AU:en_GB:en"

4 Setting per user locale

As we mentioned earlier, some users might want to define a different locale than the system-wide locale. To do this, export the variable LANG with the specified locale in the ~/.bashrc file. For example, to use the en_AU.UTF-8 locale:

export LANG=en_AU.UTF-8

The locales will be updated next time ~/.bashrc is sourced. To update, either re-login or source it manually:

$ source ~/.bashrc

5 Setting collation

Collation, or sorting, is a little different. Sorting is a goofy beast and different locales do things differently. To get around potential issues, Parabola used to set LC_COLLATE="C" in /etc/profile. However, this method is now deprecated. To enable this behavior, simply add the following to /etc/locale.conf:


Now the ls command will sort dotfiles first, followed by uppercase and lowercase filenames. Note that without a LC_COLLATE setting, locale aware apps sort by LC_ALL or LANG, but LC_COLLATE settings will be overridden if LC_ALL is set. If this is a problem, ensure that LC_ALL is not set by adding the following to /etc/profile instead:

export LC_ALL=

Note that LC_ALL is the only LC variable which cannot be set in /etc/locale.conf.

6 Setting the first day of the week

In many countries the first day of the week is Monday. To adjust this, change or add the following lines in the LC_TIME section in /usr/share/i18n/locales/<your_locale>:

week            7;19971130;5
first_weekday   2
first_workday   2

And then update the system:

# locale-gen
Tip: If you experience some kind of problems with your system and would like to ask for help on the forum, mailing list or otherwise, please include the output from the misbehaving program with export LC_MESSAGES=C before posting. It will set the output messages (errors and warnings) to English, thus enabling more people to understand what the problem might be. This is not relevant if you are posting on a non-English forum.

7 Troubleshooting

7.1 My terminal doesn't support UTF-8

Unfortunately some terminals do not support UTF-8. In this case, you have to use a different terminal. Here are some terminals that have support for UTF-8:

  • vte-based terminals
  • gnustep-terminal
  • konsole
  • mlterm
  • rxvt-unicode
  • xterm

7.1.1 Xterm doesn't support UTF-8

xterm only supports UTF-8 if you run it as uxterm or xterm -u8.

7.1.2 GNOME Terminal or rxvt-unicode doesn't support UTF-8

You need to launch these applications from a UTF-8 locale or they will drop UTF-8 support. Enable the en_US.UTF-8 locale (or your local UTF-8 alternative) per the instructions above and set it as the default locale, then reboot.

8 See also