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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Entering Non-Engiish Character Sets for Genealogy

Many languages have an "alphabet" set that has some characters that are different than the standard English language set of 26 letters and a number of symbols. Genealogists need to be aware of and use the character sets for the languages of the countries where they are doing research. The best practice in today's world is for these researchers make their entries in their family tree using the correct set that reflects the time and place where their ancestors lived.

I am always surprised when those attending a class I am teaching are surprised that there are computer programs that allow typing on alternative character keyboards. The standard English ASCII Character set, used by almost every English language computer system, contains 128 characters. Here is a screenshot of the list.

This, now traditional, set of characters is limited to 128 because of the original limitations of the computer processors. This standard set is arbitrary. That means that any programmer who wishes to use a different set merely has to define the alternative set of characters in the program being written. This is usually not a very good idea since there is also a standard English language keyboard layout. As a side note, there have been many attempts over the years to implement alternative keyboard layouts without much success.

The screenshot at the beginning of this post illustrates a configuration for using a standard keyboard layout with Hebrew characters. Most keyboard sets can be expanded by using some of the keys for switching to alternative letters, i.e. shift, control or command, shift-option etc. Of course, if we move to an alternative keyboard, we usually lose our ability to "touch type" and are reduced to hunting and picking out the letters one by one.

Thinking that there is only one keyboard layout is really parochial. For example, here is a German language layout.

CC BY-SA 3.0,
Obviously, it is impracticable to buy a new keyboard for every change in the language needed to transcribe genealogical data. The alternative is to use a keyboard designed to work within the confines of either the operating system of your computer or one designed to allow "virtual" typing. All of the currently popular computer operating systems allow you to change the character set of your keyboard to a target language. Here is an example from my Apple OS X operating system.

This option is usually found in the preference or setup section of your system. You can do a Google search for specific instructions. Unfortunately, changing the character set does not change the hardware keyboard symbols so you have to have a reference either on the screen or printed out to find the characters you need. If you happen to live in a country where English is not the predominant language, you can probably purchase a keyboard that reflects your character set. (You might notice that I needed to charge my keyboard. I plugged it in and fixed that when I saw the level.)

If you are working online, you can bring up a program that provides an alternative "virtual" keyboard that will let you type with your cursor on the screen. One easily used such set of keyboards is part of Google Translate. Here is a screenshot of the program showing the keyboard for German.

When you select a language, you will usually get an icon showing a keyboard. The icon is a drop-down menu of the keyboard options offered. You can then use your cursor to select the letters you want to type and then copy them and insert them into whatever other program you are using.

There are a number of other options available online also. But you need to be specific in your online searches since the term "keyboard" is also used for music and other topics. I suggest searching for "custom on screen keyboard" and including the target language.


  1. I'm also surprised by the number of Apple OS (of any variety) users who have never realized that you can access almost every common non-English character you need just by holding down the correct key long enough. Usually the key to use is pretty intuitive. For example, holding down the "a" key long enough gives eight choices: à á â ä æ ã å ā. Using these, you don't need to change keyboards.

    1. Thanks for all of the helpful additional comments.

  2. For folks using the Windows operating system, there is a built-in program called, 'Character Map' which provides access to every font and character set installed on the machine.
    Accessing the program is simple. In Windows 10, press the Windows Key + 'C' (in earlier versions of Windows, click the Windows icon on the left of the Taskbar). Then type 'Character Map' into the search box.
    With Windows 10, two versions of Character Map will appear in the search results, a traditional 'desktop' application, and a modern UWP app, while only the 'desktop' program will appear on earlier Windows versions.
    I keep both versions pinned to the Taskbar for quick access. In addition to foreign characters, these programs also provide access to fractions (½, ¼) and other symbols, which might not be easily accessible in some programs.

    1. Thanks, very good information and suggestions

  3. Of course, again for Macs, if one works primarily in one language and is a good touch typer, it's worth memorizing and practicing the key combinations needed for that specific language. I've been typing æ, ø, å for so many years, I can type option-', option-o, and option-a just as fast as any capital letter.

    1. Also very good suggestions. Thanks again.