I'm trying to install a custom keyboard layout without sudo access, as I described in Is it possible to use a custom keyboard layout without sudo access? If so, how?, and I have a specific question about the setxkbmap command that the current answer says may well work.

More specifically, the man page for the command gives you the ability to specify a rules file:

-rules file

Specifies the name of the rules file used to resolve the requested layout and model to a set of component names.

However, it doesn't say exactly what kind of file one is meant to put on there, and I'm struggling to make sense of this option.

As far as I can figure out, this is meant to be either /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/xorg, or its alias /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/base, and indeed if I copy all of /usr/share/X11/xkb/ into ~/xkb/ and then run something like

setxkbmap -model pc105 -layout "gb" -variant "extd" -rules ~/xkb/rules/base

then it seems to work.

However, I'm not sure at all of how to modify that file. On machines where I have sudo access I follow this tutorial: I make a variant of the gb keyboard inside of xkb/symbols/gb, and I add the variant into xkb/rules/evdev.xml via

    <description>English (UK, custom)</description>

On the xkb/rules/base file, however, there is no obvious place to include such a variant, and indeed other related gb keyboard variants such as extd or intl, which appear e.g. in xkb/rules/evdev.lst, are nowhere to be seen.

So: how can I specify a file in the -rules file option that enables me to set my own variant? (without sudo access, unfortunately)

  • I suppose you'd need to edit the copy of the base file somehow. Jan 25, 2017 at 11:09
  • @Gunnar yeah, except I can't find any guidance on how to do that.
    – E.P.
    Jan 25, 2017 at 11:43

1 Answer 1


XKB's system keyboard configuration database is stored in /usr/share/X11/xkb. XKB layouts are defined in a RMLVO model: Rules, Model, Layout, Variant, Options. The main rules file in use these days is actually evdev; you can see this with setxkbmap:

$ setxkbmap -query -verbose 10
Trying to load rules file /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev...
Applied rules from evdev:
rules:      evdev
model:      pc105
layout:     us
variant:    altgr-intl
options:    caps:hyper,compose:menu
Trying to build keymap using the following components:
keycodes:   evdev+aliases(qwerty)
types:      complete
compat:     complete
symbols:    pc+us(altgr-intl)+inet(evdev)+capslock(hyper)+compose(menu)
geometry:   pc(pc105)

Each of the components mentioned in the last few lines above is a subdirectory of the system database in /usr/share/X11/xkb, and the values shown are filenames in that subdirectory (separated by +) that will be consulted to build this particular keymap. Parentheses mark a particular clause in the specified file (usually variants and options).

XKB tools (setxkbmap, xkbcomp, etc) can take an argument to search another location for the files, but this custom location must be in the same format as the system database. Here's what the system database looks like. See the README in each directory for details, and

├── compat       # ??? dark magic here, avoid
├── geometry     # as in physical, eg for generating layout maps
├── keycodes     # helpful for translating keycodes (from xev) to <FOO>
├── rules        # "evdev" is the important one; *.lst & *.xml are descriptions
├── symbols      # main layouts, variants, optional overrides
└── types        # ??? dark magic here, avoid

If you want to override these files or provide your own layouts, without merging them into the system database, what you'll do is create a similar directory structure for your own files. You probably won't need to do anything with geometry or keycodes unless you're building your own keyboards from scratch.

For a per-user configuration, $HOME/.xkb/ or $HOME/.config/xkb/ are ideal:

├── rules
│   ├── evdev-local
│   ├── evdev-local.lst
│   └── evdev-local.xml
├── symbols
│   ├── my-fun-capslock-options
│   ├── my-US-Dvorak-layout
│   └── my-ZWERTY-layout

Once your directory structure is in place, you can load your customizations with the -I /path/to/local/xkb parameter:

setxkbmap -I $HOME/.config/xkb \
  -rules evdev-local           \
  -layout my-ZWERTY-layout     \
  -option myZWERTY:option1,compose:menu,fun:caps_is_insert

You can mix and match local options like fun:caps_is_insert with system options like compose:menu as long as the specified rules file defines both of them. (Symbol files can include other symbol files but I haven't found an include syntax for rules files. You'll probably have to copy the entire system evdev rules to your local version and add your modifications.)

Using custom locations may not be usable with other XKB configuration systems like localectl, GNOME's settings daemon, or Wayland compositors that aren't configurable with setxkbmap.


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