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You might get unusual errors about Unicode and inability to convert to ASCII. Programs might just crash at random. Those are often simple to fix — all you need is correct locale configuration.

Has this ever happened to you?

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character '\u0105' in position 0: ordinal not in range(128)
Nikola: Could not guess locale for language en, using locale C
Input: ą
Desired ascii(): '\u0105'
Real ascii(): '\udcc4\udc85'
perl: warning: Setting locale failed.
perl: warning: Please check that your locale settings:
    are supported and installed on your system.
perl: warning: Falling back to the standard locale ("C").

All those errors have the same root cause: incorrect locale configuration. To fix them all, you need to generate the missing locales and set them.

Check currently used locale

The locale command (without arguments) should tell you which locales you’re currently using. (The list might be shorter on your end)

$ locale

If any of those is set to C or POSIX, has a different encoding than UTF-8 (sometimes spelled utf8) is empty (with the exception of LC_ALL), or if you see any errors, you need to reconfigure your locale.

Check locale availability and install missing locales

The first thing you need to do is check locale availability. To do this, run locale -a. This will produce a list of all installed locales. You can use grep to get a more reasonable list.

$ locale -a | grep -i utf
<lists all UTF-8 locales>
$ locale -a | grep -i utf | grep -i en_US

The best locale to use is the one for your language, with the UTF-8 encoding. The locale will be used by some console apps for output. I’m going to use en_US.UTF-8 in this guide.

If you can’t see any UTF-8 locales, or no appropriate locale setting for your language of choice, you might need to generate those. The required actions depend on your distro/OS.

  • Debian, Ubuntu, and derivatives: install language-pack-en-base, run sudo dpkg-reconfigure locales
  • RHEL, CentOS, Fedora: install glibc-langpack-en
  • Arch Linux: uncomment relevant entries in /etc/locale.gen and run sudo locale-gen (wiki)
  • For other OSes, refer to the documentation.

You need a UTF-8 locale to ensure compatibility with software. Avoid the C and POSIX locales (it’s ASCII) and locales with other encodings (those aren’t used by ~anyone these days)

Configure system-wide

On some systems, you may be able to configure locale system-wide. Check your system documentation for details. If your system has systemd, run

sudo localectl set-locale LANG=en_US.UTF-8

Configure for a single user

If your environment does not allow system-wide locale configuration (macOS, shared server with generated but unconfigured locales), or if you want to ensure it’s always configured independently of system settings.

To do this, you need to edit the configuration file for your shell. If you’re using bash, it’s .bashrc (or .bash_profile on macOS). For zsh users, .zshrc. Add this line (or equivalent in your shell):

export LANG=en_US.UTF-8 LC_ALL=en_US.UTF-8

That should be enough. Note that those settings don’t apply to programs not launched through a shell.

Python/Windows corner: Python 3.7 will fix this on Unix by assuming UTF-8 if it encounters the C locale. On Windows, Python 3.6 is using UTF-8 interactively, but not when using shell redirections to files or pipes.

This post was brought to you by ą — U+0105 LATIN SMALL LETTER A WITH OGONEK.


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