Manipulating Yiddish texts under the Unix operating system

Author: Raphael Finkel. email (without the underscore), web.

Table of contents: Choices | Issues | Fonts | Xkb | xterm | Yudit | Vim | AbiWord | mule | emacs | KDE | Summary | References |


To write Yiddish in Unix, you have these choices:
  1. Write in YIVO transliteration and convert, if you want, to some other form by using the shraybmashinke.
  2. Write directly in Unicode, storing your file in UTF-8 format.
This note concentrates on ways to do the latter. You really want to use Unicode in the long run, because it allows you to combine multiple languages into one document, and it defines presentation format, in particular, bidirectional layout.



In Unix, you will be using the X-Windows System. I recommend you get Markus Kuhn's fonts if you don't already have them in your X-Windows distribution. They are present in X11R6.4. The -misc-fixed-medium-r-normal--20-200-75-75-c-100-iso10646-1 font has my modifications to make it complete and legible for Yiddish. For TrueType fonts, I recommend FreeSans.


Instead of using X-windows keymaps, you can use the X keyboard extension, known as xkb. This facility lets you establish several keyboard layouts and switch between them. This facility is independent of all X-windows applications. It does not give you multiple-key translations. Here are instructions for Ubuntu Linux.
  1. Make sure you don't have XKB_DISABLE set in your environment variable.
  2. As root, append to /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us the contents of this file.
  3. In /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules, put the following line at the end of the us: section (around line 269) of both base.lst and evdev.lst:
     yiddish         us: Yiddish 
  4. In /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules, put the following line within the "us" <layout>, in the variantList after the Russian phonetic variant, in both base.xml and evdev.xm::
  5. Run setxkbmap us
  6. Using gnome-keyboard-properties, under the "Layouts" tab,
    1. Add a layout: By language → Yiddish → USA Yiddish
    2. Set Layout Options so you know the keys to change layout. You might want to use keyboard LED to show alternative layout.
  7. Run setxkbmap -option grp:switch,grp:alts_toggle
  8. You can now use (1) whatever you set up in the previous step to switch layouts, (2) the shift key to switch levels and (3) the right-alt key to switch groups (a few keys have a second group of symbols). The keyboard looks like this pdf file. If you need to type non-precomposed letters, separating an alef from its pasekh, for instance, use the vowels positioned on the Q key or the group-two symbols on various other keys.


Versions of xterm since 2000 understand UTF-8. You can get xterm and compile it yourself if you need; you should stipulate ./configure --enable-wide-chars. Limitations/bugs: Xterm does not have any BIDI support. It composes characters by simple overprinting unless it can find a precomposed character. It puts precomposed characters in the cut buffer, not post-composed, as it should. Supporting file: You might want to add this information to your ~/.Xdefaults file to support (1) a nice Unicode font (at "medium" font size, and (2) a keyboard encoding for Yiddish (enable/disable with the Mode_switch key).


Gaspar Sinai's Yudit editor allows you to edit UTF-8 text. Here is a screenshot. I have built a keyboard mapping for it that is part of the distribution. This mapping has a multiple-key front-end processor, so you can type "sh" if you want a shin. The Yiddish mapping also inserts shtumer alef after a space before certain vowels. Yudit also works with my XIM. Yudit has its own truetype-font display engine, so you don't have to have one in your X11. Yudit has internationalization, so you can have all editor messages presented in Yiddish. Yudit does true BIDI display. You will need to set your ~/.yudit/ file to have lines something like this:

yudit.editor.fontsize=20                |
You might want the Cyberbit font. It is missing a few characters, which you can get by adding CyberBitMods to the font paths. You might also want the caslr font, although it is not as pretty for Yiddish. Yudit is capable of generating PostScript output. There is a version of Yudit that runs on Win32 platforms that you can find here. Brief Win32 installation instructions: (1) Run the executable you download to install the program (its name matches this pattern: yudit*.exe (2) Install the bitmap fonts by running the program that matches this pattern: bitmap_fonts*.exe (3) Using any text editor, modify Program Files\Yudit\Config\ as follows:
yudit.datapath=C:\Program Files\Yudit\data
yudit.fontpath=C:\WINNT\FONTS [for Win2000]
yudit.fontpath=C:\WINDOES\FONTS [for Win98]


Bram Moolenaar's Vim editor is a freeware version of the ever-popular vi editor; it runs fine on both Unix and Win32. Starting with version 6.0, it has pretty good support for Unicode and Yiddish. Use it along with xterm (as above) or in gvim mode (bypassing xterm) to get the full benefit. Here is a screenshot of the gvim interface. You don't need the special character mapping stuff for xterm; use a Vim keymap instead. Put these commands in ~/.vimrc:

setfileencodings=cp1255,utf-8 guifont=8x13bold encoding=utf-8
filetype plugin on
syntax on
You will want to know about the following commands:

:set rl  sets mode in current window to RTL
:set norl  sets mode in current window to LTR
:set keymap=yi  switches to the Yiddish keymap
:set encoding=utf-8 allows Vim to output well to your UTF-8 enabled xterm
<control-^>  toggles foreign-language input mode.
If you plan to mix languages, I suggest you use multiple windows, one with rtl turned on, the other without. Limitations/bugs: Vim does not have any BIDI support and is unlikely to get any. Supporting file: Get this file and untar it in your home directory. It includes spellcheck for Romanized and Unicode Yiddish and keyboard macros (a full front-end processor) for Unicode Yiddish. It requires version 6.0 at least. Read the README file (it has instructions for Unix and for Win32).


AbiWord is a full-featured (eventually) word processor, not just a text editor. It uses XML as its preferred file format, but it can import and export formatted files and text files in Unicode. The most recent versions of the AbiWord word processor handle BIDI. They also can do Hebrew letter-shaping, which means that final letters are automatically generated, but the resulting file then contains medial, not final letters; leave this feature turned off. AbiWord has versions for Unix, MacOS, and Win32; all have similar look and feel. Here is a screenshot.

Much of the following is obsolete; AbiWord is a quickly moving target. It is tricky to set up the fonts for AbiWord for Unix/X-Windows.

  1. In its fonts directory (typically /usr/share/AbiSuite/fonts, you need to build a subdirectory utf-8.
  2. Put a copy or a link to reasonable true-type fonts there, such as arial.ttf.
  3. Run ttmkfdir in that directory (find ttmkfdir here). This program extracts font names from your ttf files and builds fonts.scale.
  4. In the resulting file fonts.scale, make one new line for each font (there will likely already be several with slightly different coding names). On this new line, set the coding, which is the -iso suffix, to say iso10646-1. This suffix says "I am a Unicode font".
  5. Run mkfontdir in that directory. This program builds fonts.dir, which X-Windows needs to understand the contents.
  6. In AbiWord's bin directory, typically /usr/share/AbiSuite/bin, run /usr/share/AbiSuite/fonts/utf-8 ISO-10646-1. This program establishes auxiliary files *.u2g and *.t42 for each font. AbiWord needs those auxiliary files to understand the fonts.
  7. Your X-Windows server must understand both the font types usually used by AbiWord and also True Type fonts, because only the Arial True Type font, so far as I know, is widely available and supports Yiddish. You need at least version 4.1.0 of X-Windows. In its configuration file (typically /etc/XF86Config), you need to have
      Load  "type1"
      Load  "xtt"
    in the "Module" section. If you have to add those lines, you need to restart X-Windows to have the changes take effect.
  8. Each time you run AbiWord, you should first set your LANG environment variable to yi.utf-8. The .utf-8 part indicates what font set to use. The first part says, "I prefer Yiddish throughout".
  9. When you read in a UTF-8 text file, read it as type encoded text, and then select UTF8 encoding in the resulting dialog.
  10. I don't know a good way to map the keyboard. I use xmodmap and switch between English and Yiddish maps. However, this technique requires that you use multiple keystrokes to get vowels on an alef or lines above a beys or any other multiple-utf8 character. I can give you the relevant xmodmap files and a small tk program that lets you alternate among them.
  11. When you exit AbiWord, you need to unset the LANG variable and also remove extra directories from your fontpath that AbiWord sometimes leaves lying around: xset fp- /usr/share/AbiSuite/fonts/ and xset fp- /usr/share/AbiSuite/fonts/utf-8/.

I am working on a spelling checker for AbiWord/Yiddish. I have spelling check files; ask me for details. The following problems currently exist:

  1. Getting AbiWord to understand spellcheck files for languages like Yiddish that are not in its current list. I just call them Finnish files and set my language to Finnish.
  2. The interactive menu when a misspelling is found uses a non-utf8 font, so all you see is gibberish.


Mule 2.3 is an extension to the Gnu emacs 19.28 editor. It does not support unicode, but it does support various language-specific code pages. It uses its own peculiar "junet" file format for multilanguage files. I advise you to avoid it.


There is an experimental (10/2003) version of emacs that handles UTF8 and reportedly handles BIDI fairly well; it is at Emacs is a full-featured editor, but it takes a lot of effort to learn it. Update (7/2008): while BiDi support is not yet available for Emacs (except for that experimental one and running emacs -nw (no graphics) in a BiDi-capable terminal emulator), you can make use of poor-mans-bidi.el, which runs the command line tools fribidi or bidiv as a subprocess to transform logical input into visual output in a mirrored buffer. There is also an input method for Yiddish on Emacs that handles a YIVO-like input, among others, written by Niels Giesen. As of August 2010, a development branch of Emacs supports bidirectional display and obsoletes poor-mans-bidi.


KDE 3 is an "environment", including a window manager and many applications. Its word-processing application is called KOffice. KOffice supports BIDI and various encodings, including Unicode.


Product BIDI keyboard mappings editor level
xterm none single-key no editing
Vim manual by buffer; only affects display multiple-key; good YIVO transcription full editing (use my spelling-checker plugin for Romanized or Unicode Yiddish); plain text only; monospace display only
Yudit automatic; only affects display multiple-key; good YIVO transcription acceptible editing; plain text only; allows True Type and non-monospace fonts; generates PostScript.
KOffice ? ? full "word processing"; inserts format codes; can output plain text or XML or some other forms.
AbiWord automatic; only affects display no full "word processing"; inserts format codes; can output plain text or XML or some other forms.