Foreign and Special Characters in Word Processing


When foreign-language students want to type in their new language, they almost universally face the problem of how to enter the accented and special characters that exist in their new language, but not in English. Back when we just had to contend with typewriters, we could fake it by backspacing and "typing the accent" over the vowel, which worked rather well when Umlaut'ing lower-case vowels in German, but less well with French's accent aigu, accent grave, and accent circonflexe. And of course that would not work at all with French's cédille (ie, the "ç" in "façade") or with languages with letters such as å, ø, ã, õ, ñ, or ß. Rather, the solution had to be to just type it out and then write the accents, cédilles, and special characters by hand. Or, if you had the money, you could buy an IBM Selectric typewriter with the replaceable type-heads and get the type-heads for those languages 1.

Of course, the old typewriter tricks can no longer work with computers -- you can no longer type two different characters over each other -- , so we must find solutions for the computer. It turns out that the solutions have existed from the beginning with the IBM PC and with the MacIntosh. It's just a matter of learning what those solutions are, which is what I intend to help you do with these pages.


These are my caveats:
  1. Virtually all my experience has been with Windows (25 years) and with MS-DOS (10 years), so those are the OSes that I will concentrate on. I have had passing exposure to a couple MacIntosh solutions, which I will mention below.

  2. Virtually all my practical experience working with foreign-language characters has been in Windows, so I will cover that the most. I had researched the issue in MS-DOS, but that no longer has much practical value so my coverage will mainly be for historical interest.

  3. A given Windows machine can be set up to run in practically any language. That is not where my interest lies. Rather, I want to discuss how to have an English-language Windows machine use non-English characters while remaining an English-language machine.

  4. My target audience is the English-speaking foreign-language student who wants to use foreign-language characters on his English-language Windows machine without having to reconfigure his entire computer (which was the old MS-DOS solution). Of course, these pages should also prove useful for students of foreign languages who are working from base languages other than English.

  5. Some of these solutions change from one version of Windows and Windows applications to the next. Indeed, it often feels like Microsoft is playing a game of "guess which shell the pea is hiding under this time." I can discuss the solutions that I do have experience with and will try to research what I can of the ones I don't have. As a result, sometimes all I can do is tell you what to look for and where you might find it.


Footnote 1.
There was a linguistics major, Mike, in my Russian class in 1974. His handwriting was horrifically illegible (that story below), so when his parents bought an IBM Selectric for their business in a deal where they got a dozen typeheads for free, so they let their son choose which ones to order. So he ordered the typeheads for Russian, Greek, International Phonetic Alphabet, etc, the most expensive ones, so the salesman really loved him for that! He happily started typing his Russian homework assignments and was very surprised when they were returned to him marked up in red and marked down even lower for too many mistakes. The reason the professor gave was that now he was able to read what Mike was writing.


As I said, Mike's handwriting was notoriously illegible in all languages except for Sanskrit. Being an exceptional student, he skipped a grade in elementary school. That was the grade where they taught handwriting, so he never received that instruction. Then in each grade after that his teachers would much rather accept his printed work instead of having to teach him how to handwrite.

That worked until he encountered a hard-nosed high school teacher who flatly refused to accept anything except handwritten, but refused to help Mike learn how. So Mike went to his father for help and his father gave him a handwriting copy book (old-school students will remember those books that were meant to improve our penmanship). What his father didn't tell him was that it was a German copy book which taught the old Sütterlinschrift, which was taught in Germany from 1915 to 1941 (follow link to see what it looks like). He practiced from the copy book and when he turned in his next assignment, that teacher muttered though his clenched teeth, "If this is in German, I'll kill you." And at that point, that teacher just gave up on Mike and would accept his work however he wrote it.

A couple years after that, a cousin was visiting from Ireland and, when he told her that story, she offered to teach him. Of course, being Irish she taught him Irish handwriting (see here), which just confused matters even worse. And as a linguistics major he had to learn to write in other alphabets, such as Greek and Cyrillic, and he carried his bad habits into them as well. Yet his Sanskrit professor told him that he wrote that perfectly with a "classic hand."


For Windows, there are basically four different solutions to our problem, which I list below and from which I link you to further explanation.

Although I am not qualified to advise you about the MacIntosh solutions, I will offer what I do know at the bottom of this page.


Using Keyboard Drivers
As scary as the name may sound, this is the solution that I prefer to use. It used to be difficult and cumbersome to use, but Windows has improved this option immensely.

A keyboard driver is system software that maps a particular layout of characters and functions to the keys of the PC keyboard. By selecting the particular keyboard driver for a particular country's keyboard layout, your keyboard becomes a keyboard of that country and you can just type away in that language. This is a very good approach for typing sizable amounts of foreign language text.

This would be the ideal approach, if it didn't also require you to learn a new keyboard. Some keyboards aren't that much different from the QWERTY keyboard (eg, the German keyboard swaps the "y" and the "z", making it QWERTZ), while some are radically different, like the French keyboard (AZERTY). In addition, you will find many punctuation and special characters reassigned to different keys and some keys reassigned for the accented vowels and special characters which are the goal of this exercise. Fortunately, there is the US International keyboard which keeps the standard US keyboard intact while adding special characters accessible via the Alt-Gr key (right Alt key) and "dead keys" (follow this section's link, Using Keyboard Drivers).

Windows and MS-DOS support changing keyboard drivers, but to different degrees:

  • From Windows 95/98 to Windows 10, Windows enables the user to have several different keyboard drivers loaded all at the same time and it provides a very flexible environment for rapid and easy switching between keyboards. Very rapid and easy. This is the way to go.

  • Windows 3.1 only allows one keyboard driver to be loaded at a time, requiring you to go through the installation procedure all over again each time you want to change keyboards. That is cumbersome, which is why Windows 95 was such a marked improvement.

  • MS-DOS is even more restrictive, requiring you to change the configuration files and reboot the system. That made it extremely cumbersome as well as requiring some technical knowledge. Basically, you would just do this just once to set up your MS-DOS machine to run in that particular language, which is not the kind of solution I'm looking for.

Using keyboard drivers is the method that I recommend, especially since I'm sure almost everybody using Windows has a version that's Win95 or later. The next methods are good for individual special-character insertions and should be learned as easy alternatives in a pinch.

Using Character Map
Character Map is a Windows utility program with which you can view all the characters of any font installed on your system along with their keystrokes or character codes. You can also select and copy any number of characters to the clipboard for pasting into your document.

This would be a prefered approach for entering individual special characters for single words or phrases, especially considering its following of the basic Windows point-and-click philosophy. However, it can become cumbersome very quickly with any sizable amount of text. I would usually copy the set of special characters into the document, then copy and paste them from there as needed.

Character Map is available in Windows starting with Windows 3.1 and possibly earlier. Being a Windows utility, Character Map is not available in MS-DOS.

Using the Numeric Keypad
The most universally available approach is entering the special character's code through the Numeric Keypad. This approach would work for individual special characters, but would be too cumbersome for any sizable amount of text.

Of course, this method requires you to know what those codes are. When you use the Using Character Map utility mentioned above and click on a character, then in the lower right-hand corner it displays the code you would need to enter. Details are provided on my Using the Numeric Keypad page.

This method has been available from the beginning in MS-DOS to Windows 3.1 up to Windows 7. It should still be available in Windows 10, but I haven't been able to verify that. Also please note that you have to use it just right for it to work right, so be sure to read my Using the Numeric Keypad page before trying it.

Application-Specific Methods
Some applications take it upon themselves to incorporate methods for handling special characters. While that was convenient for the users, there was no standard between different applications for entering special characters. As a result, you had to learn each application's arbitrary methods for entering special characters.

In the case of DOS applications, this was considered the only way you could enter the special characters that it required. An example would be the MS-DOS SPANVERB utility I distribute for free for learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs. In order to enter an accented vowel, you press an apostrophe (" ' ") and then the vowel, though arbitrarily you press ";" for a "ü" or a "˜" for an "ñ". A different DOS application could very well require entirely different keystrokes and many I have dealt with in the distant past did just that. In addition, in most DOS applications the programmer never anticipated the need for inputting special characters and so that feature was never included. Sorry, you need to learn each of these individually.

Many Windows application programs continue this troublesome DOS tradition with special unique keystrokes. Transparent Language's WordAce! practice software was different in that it had you type in the letter to be accented and then you would press the UpArrow and DnArrow keys to scroll through to the accent you wanted.

Microsoft Word is noteworthy if for no other reason than its large user base. For entering a number of special characters, Word uses a set of keyboard shortcuts that are also fairly intuitive -- once you have learned the basic approach -- and Word directly supports inserting symbols into the document. Word provides a dialog box, "Symbol", for entering special characters into your document as well as for looking up a character's keyboard shortcut.

Most of my research had been nearly two decades ago with Word 97, but having just now checked Word 2007 I find that it not only still offers the same keyboard shortcut support, but its "Symbol" dialog box appears to be identical to the Word 97 version. In Word 97 you opened the dialog box via Insert | Symbol... and in Word 2007 you click on the Insert ribbon and then on Symbol which is on the right-most end of that ribbon; interpolate or extrapolate for whichever version of Word you use.

I offer instructions on using Word 97's special character shortcuts on my Keyboard Shortcuts in Word 97 page. As I just pointed out, that information still applies in Word 2007 and should probably still apply to later versions.

The Mac
I know of at least two methods for entering special characters on a Mac:

  1. Virtual Keyboards. One company I worked for bought some MacIntoshes almost as soon as it came out. That is where I was exposed to entering special characters with a virtual keyboard. Well, actually I saw a virtual keyboard on a screen and was shown that you could enter special characters with it.

    I forget what keystroke you used to display it (and I suspect that has changed with various newer versions of the OS), but you could display the keyboard on the screen and, as I recall, switch to different keyboards on the screen, then use the mouse to click on the key you wanted and that character would be entered into your document. The end-result of all that was that you could "type in" whatever special character the Mac had to offer. Also, I have no idea whether that also changed the keyboard layout key assignments of the physical keyboard.

    My friend just got a Windows 10 laptop, which also offers keyboards for different languages as virtual keyboards. Since her laptop can function as a tablet and the screen is touch-sensitive, so you could literally type on the screen, I assume that that feature was included to support its use as a tablet.

  2. Option Codes. While researching this section a couple decades ago, I stumbled upon MacIntosh Option Codes, which I copied. These appear to be very much like what Word does (see section immediately above this one) and, indeed, the table on that page does mention Word for Mac.

    If you have a Mac and this is a direction you would like to try, then this may give you the keywords to use in your search.


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First uploaded on 1998 May 10.
Last updated on 2016 November 21.

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