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Due to a coffee accident some numbers of my laptop's keyboard stopped working. I used xmodmap to use F1, F2, etc, as replacements and saved the configs to ~/.Xmodmap.

However, that caused a few problems.

  1. I don't always use X on this computer, and without starting X xmodmap does not apply.

  2. It causes X to take more time to start.

  3. For some reason it caused XFCE keyboard shortcuts that had nothing to do with any of the keys changed via xmodmap to stop working (in fact, all keyboard shortcuts stopped working, except for the window manager shortcuts). After a few minutes passed since I start X, the XFCE shortcuts start working normally again! This lag isn't very annoying, but is also an issue.

I imagine there is some kind of mapping that is read by the OS before X starts. Isn't there a way to change that mapping? Is it any way to change the keyboard mapping w/o using X tools? Im using Debian stable.

PS: Apparently the file that calls xmodmap .Xmodmap on startx is /etc/xdg/xfce4/xinitrc. It's contents can be found here.

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Have you thought about removing the keyboard and literally washing it? It will take a day to dry out, but is perfectly safe. Also, replacing a laptop keyboard is relatively inexpensive (~$25) compared to the aggravation of re-training your fingers. – jdh Mar 18 '14 at 19:29
I realize it's been a while since this was asked and the information's likely no longer needed, but on the "no unanswered questions" principle I added an answer below. Hopefully it will be of some use to someone, even if it's not the original asker. – FeRD Jul 25 '14 at 8:55
up vote 6 down vote accepted

First, the good news

The Linux system console absolutely has its own set of keyboard mappings, which can be managed using the tools from the kbd package, specifically dumpkeys and showkey for discovery and loadkeys to load in a customized mapping. The SuperUser question How to change console keymap in Linux? has an answer with good information on how to use these tools.

Now, the bad news

While it's true that those tools will allow you to remap the keys on the Linux console, without involving xmodmap or requiring that X be running, they will only affect the keymappings on the virtual text console. The changes will have absolutely no effect in the graphical environment, because X's XInput/evdev system reads from the input devices directly and does its own processing.

So, if you were hoping to avoid using xmodmap by just remapping on the console and having it apply everywhere, I'm afraid that won't work. In fact, you'd need to remap both the console (using loadkeys) and X11 (using a method like xmodmap), to use the same keyboard layout everywhere.

The solution to the xmodmap slowness (and bugginess, since its remappings are glitchy and non-persistent in desktop environments that use layout switching) would be to define an entirely new keyboard layout based off of whatever layout you were previously using, rather than applying runtime modifications. On X startup, you'd load that new, remapped layout instead of whatever you're using now. (It seems this is now the only way to reliably modify the keyboard layout in recent Ubuntus — and possibly other distros — as their xmodmap is no longer useful.)

For information on defining and using a custom xkb keyboard layout, see:

  1. Howto: Custom keyboard layout definitions in the Ubuntu Community Wiki.
  2. How to modify a keyboard layout in Linux, a blog post by Romano Giannetti.

Both were written this year (2014), so the information should be current. The Ubuntu wiki information should be applicable to any distro, for the most part, as they all use the xkb system in X.

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Wonderful! That was exactly what I was looking for. However, as you mentioned in the comments, it's no longer the case, since I got a new notebook. I cannot test the answer, but since it's exactly what I was looking for I'm pretty sure it'd work, or at least give an alternative to xmodmap. Thanks! – Alex Jul 29 '14 at 4:32

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