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Monday, December 5, 2016

Using Alt-Codes to type in foreign languages (011)

Working on "Gefrorne Tränen" brought up a familiar frustration - umlauts. Where on the keyboard is ä ? There's a few options out there, but let me tell you about my favorite: Alt-Codes.


When at my desktop computer, I have a full-sized keyboard, which includes a NumPad on the right-hand side, set up kind of like a calculator. I use a PC (not a Mac), and also included on that keyboard is the Alt key. A few years back, I discovered that programmers from an age long forgotten programmed codes that use the Alt key and the NumPad to generate special characters. It's a remnant of DOS, I think, when everything on the screen had to be constructed with blocks, and things like boxes with borders were fancy.

Anyway, this is good news for us, because now we have Alt-Codes! Here's how you use them. Simply press and hold the Alt button, press a sequence into the NumPad, and release the Alt button. For example, Alt + 132 (that's 1, then 3, then 2) yields a ä. Easy!

There's two different types of Alt-Codes out there. There's a three-digit version and a four-digit version. Many special characters can be produced using either version, if you know the code.

You can use these codes in almost any program (nowadays called "apps"). Word, Excel, Paint, web browsers, World of Warcraft, almost anything. They're pretty universal. This week I found an exception - I'll get into that in a bit.

The hardest part is remembering these codes. I've tried memorization, but I can't seem to get them to stick. I would often find myself punching in code after code after code, hoping I stumble across the one I want again. The three-digit ones start around 127 and go through 168, and a lot of the most useful ones are in those first 10 or 20 numbers. Sometimes I wouldn't find it, and I'd turn to scouring Bing images for a useful chart - but even then, I couldn't remember what exactly to call these codes, and the charts would be far from useful.

So, I made my own! I needed it to be laid out alphabetically, and I needed to have it handy for when I was typing away at the computer. I charted it out onto a spreadsheet, and sized it down to something I could keep under my keyboard. For durability, I "laminated" it (meaning I covered the paper with packing tape - real classy).

So now, whenever I need that ä, I just slide out my chart, find the letter, and I'm good to go!

Here's a jpg version special for you. I've included three-digit, four-digit, and another something called "Unicode" where I had them (it's not exhaustive...).

Update on 12/20/2016 - Laminated versions of this chart are now available for those that become "patrons" of Singerreise! Check out this announcement, and then head to https://patreon.com/singerreise ! 

Some other ways to do it

Microsoft Word

When in a standard office program like MS Word, you can often get a special character by another set of key presses. These are shortcuts built into the program itself, and is not universal like the Alt-Codes, but they certainly are easier to remember, especially if you're on a laptop that doesn't have a NumPad.
  • To get é, for example, use Ctrl + ', then press the e key. That's using the "single-quote" key, near the Enter key.
  • For a capitalized É, use Ctrl + ', Shift + e.
  • An accent going the other way would use the ` key in the upper left corner of the keyboard.
  • For Ê, though, you'd have to use Ctrl + Shift + 6, Shift + e, because ^ shares the same key as the 6, and Ctrl + 6 by itself is a different shortcut.
  • The same thing goes for Ë, use Ctrl + Shift + ;, Shift + e, because ; and : are on the same key.
Another technique for Office-type programs is the "Insert symbol" option in the menu. That system uses Unicode tables, so it might take some sorting through charts to find just the right one. If there's a shortcut for that symbol, you can use this table to find out what that is, too.

Tablets and Phones

Most tablets and phones with touchscreen keyboards have a function where you can press and hold a letter on the keyboard, and get different variants for that key.

On Windows tablets, you can call up this keyboard, even when there's a physical keyboard attached, by clicking on this icon in the system tray.

Desktop and laptop users can momentarily trick their computer into thinking it's a tablet by clicking the bottom right corner of the screen for the Notification Center, and then clicking tablet mode. The icon above will appear in the system tray. If there's another shortcut to bring up the tablet onscreen keyboard (there's another thing called the "on-screen keyboard" available through Ease of Access, but that isn't going to help here). If there's another way to get to this keyboard, readers, let me know!


To my chagrin, this week I discovered that Alt-Codes do not work in my graphics program, GIMP 2. I use it for designing the thumbnails in my videos. If you happen to use this program, too, you are probably going to need Unicodes. For GIMP, when you are adding text, press Ctrl + Shift + U to enter Unicode-mode. You'll see a little U displayed. Type in the correct combination of numbers and/or letters (no NumPad required here), and it'll print out a symbol for you. If you don't use GIMP, ignore this part.

Did I miss anything? I'm sure I did - so if you have some favorite tricks for getting these special characters, be sure to mention it in the comments below.

If you'd like a (real) laminated copy of this handy chart, printed on something durable and coffee-proof, let me know. I have half a mind to get a bunch of them made up and made available for sale...


  1. Nice! I wasn't aware of all these methods, and that chart is indeed handy.

    The method I usually use (on a Windows computer) is to set up the built-in keyboard layouts for various languages. Instructions for how to do this on Windows 10 are at:


    You can find instructions for other (at least Windows based) operating systems by searching online for terms like "windows 7 change keyboard language" (or whatever the operating system is). Most of the layouts work quite well for that particular language, making it easy to type all the non-English characters, and you can switch among languages easily too (with Win+Space on some operating systems, or search online for other keyboard shortcuts to do so).

  2. I usually use the different keyboard layouts above, but two other methods that I sometimes use too are:

    1. A variation on your chart method. Instead of making a chart with alt codes, make a Word document with all the extended characters that you need. Then keep that document open in another window and cut and paste the characters from there into your main document as you need them.

    2. In Microsoft Word (this method is program-specific) you can set up your own autocorrections, so you can for example set up \aumlaut to automatically get replaced with an actual ä as soon as you type that. Where the autocorrect options are varies depending on what version of Word that you have.

  3. Thanks again for the comments!

    Another reader sent me an email about the language specific keyboard (Shortcut: Windows + Space to toggle which language). It works in Windows 10 as well. I have used this for Russian, since Cyrillic is so foreign. (You'll notice that right next to my keyboard icon in my system tray is "ENG", because it is also set up for "РУС.")

    The main issue I have with this method is that it is hard to know which keys have been remapped to which letters without some sort of physical keyboard overlay. I may be missing something here, though. The best way to use this technique that I've found is to "trick" the computer into thinking that it is a tablet, then forcing the on-screen keyboard to appear, as I describe above. Then you can click on the letters you want, but you can't use your physical keyboard at the same time.

    The other issue is that for all the normal characters, my fingers already know where to go on my QWERTY keyboard. By switching to a new language, I'd have to rediscover not only the special characters (which occur only 10% of the time, at best), but the regular ones too (if I remember correctly). For me, it's shorter to type with the keyboard I'm comfortable with, and for the occasional special character, punch in a quick code and be on my way.

    Another suggestion I received by email was to use the embedded "Character Map", available through Start → Windows Accessories → Character Map. This works like a copy-able typewriter, click on a letter and then you can copy and paste it into whatever you're working on. A couple problems with this though - it's not necessarily laid out all that well, so you might spend a lot of time hunting for that one piece that you need.

    The other problem is simply efficiency. With this, or with that on-the-side Word document open, to use it you'd have to:
    • Alt-Tab to the other window
    • hunt/scroll for a symbol
    • click or highlight it with the mouse
    • press Ctrl + C to copy it
    • press Alt-Tab again
    • press Ctrl + V to paste it
    That's a lot of steps for me, compared to:
    • glance at my chart
    • punch in the one code
    Additionally, there are a few programs that don't like to be "Alt-Tabbed", causing graphical or stability issues, and a few programs have other uses for Ctrl-V.

    Your other MS Word trick is a neat idea. I hadn't thought about using Auto-Correct for this purpose. Still, though, that's a lot of setup and memorization involved. I can see where in the end it would wind up being faster, because using the Alt and Ctrl keys slow down typing a smidge. Your plan would keep your fingers in "home" position. But I think I type too slowly for that to be of any benefit for me, and I'm not regularly doing pages of text at a time in foreign languages.

    Anyway, I'm glad you think the chart is handy! If I get a stack of them made up, all nice and laminated, I'll make sure a copy gets into your hands. :)

    1. Thanks -- that'd be great!

      Also, your comment has led me to look further into some of this, and I have found some interesting things that can help with entering characters from other languages:

      1. Regarding switching keyboard languages on Windows computers, all the recent Windows operating systems have an On Screen Keyboard built in. (You can find and run it just by searching your programs for On Screen Keyboard.) This is not the same thing as what you get when you go into tablet mode. Rather, it is a convenient moveable small window that sits on top of all other windows, and which you can mix with regular keyboard typing if you like. Also, it changes to match the current operating system keyboard language, so it shows you where all the additional characters are. (It has some convenient options that can be adjusted via the "Options" button too, such as type by mouse hover rather than by click.) Anyway, that solves the problem of not knowing where the new characters are, although of course touch typing with a different keyboard layout still takes some practice.

      2. For generating text with arbitrary Unicode characters from time to time, the following website is helpful:


      You choose your language (including IPA, which could be handy for singers and voice teachers) and then it gives you an editor with buttons for extra characters and with easy to learn keyboard shortcuts. So if your text isn't super long, you could just enter it on that website and then cut and paste the whole thing into whatever program you like.

      3. If I were frequently typing long texts in other languages, I would consider the typeit.org app (for Windows) available at the above site. It's free to try out, and under $20 to purchase. It lets you use a similar interface with keyboard shortcuts to type extra characters directly without having to go to the website.

      4. For about the same $20 price, there is the "Comfort On Screen Keyboard" app at:


      I haven't actually tried this one out (although there is a free trial period), but it is designed to be an enhanced version of Microsoft's built-in On Screen Keyboard.

      I hope these are useful options for you. (I myself find the built-in On Screen Keyboard and the unicode websites quite convenient.)

    2. Hmmm... the comment I entered earlier today seems to have been vaporized. Maybe I didn't hit the "Publish" button the second time after logging in. Okay, I'll try again:

      Great -- thanks!

      Your comments have led me to investigate this further, and I have found some interesting things:

      1. All recent Windows operating systems have an On Screen Keyboard (just search for On Screen Keyboard in your programs). This is different from the one you get when you go into tablet mode. This one also stays on top of all other windows, but it is resizable (up to a point) and movable, and it can be mixed with ordinary typing. So not only does it show you the layout, but you can type as usual and then grab the extra characters from the on screen keyboard as need be. Very convenient! (It also has some further options that can be accessed from the "Options" button, such as turning click sounds on/off or typing by hovering rather than clicking, etc.)

      2. The website http://www.typeit.org/ has an excellent unicode text editor, with buttons for extra characters and easy-to-learn keyboard shortcuts. Just choose your language and off you go. With text that isn't too long (say less than novel-length), I'd think that you could enter it into the editor there and then cut and paste the whole thing into whatever program you need. This website also includes an IPA keyboard, which could be useful to singers and voice teachers.

      3. If you find that you are often entering long texts in other languages, there is a Windows app that you can buy from the typeit.org website above that lets you use their method without having to go to the website. It's about $20, but it is free to try out/download.

      4. There is also a Unicode character picker at this website: http://r12a.github.io/pickers/ . For most European languages, selecting "Latin & Diacritics" will get you what you want. As you're entering characters, you just click on the main character (say "a") and then all the associated characters appear on the menu (with all manner of accents, umlauts, etc.) I don't think this would be the most efficient way to get text with lots of diacritics into the computer, but it does make it quite easy to find the one(s) that you want (and get information about them, their codes, etc.) if you don't have too many of them. Even better is their Unicode IPA character picker -- check that one out if you visit the site. The layout is quite convenient.

      5. If you want an enhanced version of the built-in On Screen Keyboard, Comfort Software has one for about $20 at http://www.comfort-software.com/on-screen-keyboard.html . Could be good if you regularly enter tons of international texts into the computer.

      (The above links can be found at http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?item_id=inputtoollinks , but that website also seems to have some outdated links mixed in there too.)

      I hope you find these helpful! I have myself already found them so, particularly the built-in On Screen Keyboard -- that makes it much easier to use other language keyboards in Windows.

  4. Thanks for the chart, it was immediately useful for one of my projects! It looks like there's a way to enable typing of Unicode but I haven't tried it yet.