Dealing with missing locales on remote hosts

Vincent Bernat

On my system, I happen to set LANG to fr_FR.utf8 and LC_MESSAGES to en_US.utf8. This means that applications should follow French cultural conventions for most things except for messages which should be displayed in US English. On my own system, /etc/locale.gen contains these two locales. However, when I connect to some random remote system, they may be unavailable. Most applications will fallback silently to C. However, Perl can be quite noisy:

$ perl -e 'print "Hello\n";'
perl: warning: Setting locale failed.
perl: warning: Please check that your locale settings:
        LANGUAGE = (unset),
        LC_ALL = (unset),
        LC_MESSAGES = "en_US.utf8",
        LANG = "fr_FR.utf8"
    are supported and installed on your system.
perl: warning: Falling back to the standard locale ("C").

This is an incredibly annoying message. I don’t understand why we still need to bear it. Perl documentation explains how to get rid of this message. The simplest way is to set PERL_BADLANG environment variable to 0. Problem solved.

$ PERL_BADLANG=0 perl -e 'print "Hello\n";'

Well, no. Keep reading. When you connect to a remote host with ssh, all your environment variables are thrown away, except ones defined in AcceptEnv directive in /etc/ssh/sshd_config file on the remote host. On Debian, this directive defaults to LANG LC_*. This means that PERL_BADLANG will not be transmitted on the remote system. Back to square one.

Since I cannot install my favourite locales on all hosts or fiddle environment variables on them, I use something like this in my .zshrc:

ssh() {
  [ -t 1 ] && echo -ne "\033]0;$@\007"
  LANG=C LC_MESSAGES=C =ssh "$@"

Unfortunately, on systems where my locales are present, I still fallback to the crappy C locale. I could just unset LANG and LC_MESSAGES to allow fallback to the proper default locale but if the remote system starts to speak Spanish, I will not be pleased. Moreover, the behavior of C locale (also known as POSIX locale) is undefined with characters not in the portable character set. From IEEE Std 1003.1:

Conforming systems shall provide a POSIX locale, also known as the C locale. The behaviour of standard utilities and functions in the POSIX locale shall be as if the locale was defined via the localedef utility with input data from the POSIX locale tables in Locale Definition.

The tables in Locale Definition describe the characteristics and behaviour of the POSIX locale for data consisting entirely of characters from the portable character set and the control character set. For other characters, the behaviour is unspecified. For C-language programs, the POSIX locale shall be the default locale when the setlocale() function is not called.

The POSIX locale can be specified by assigning to the appropriate environment variables the values C or POSIX.

There is no way to detect the locales installed on the remote system unless you connect to it. Starting a connection just to check the locale is too expensive.

On my own systems, I use another snippet in .zshrc to reconfigure the locales to my favourite ones if they are available:

export LANG=C
(( $+commands[locale] )) && function {
    local available
    local locales
    local locale
    locales=( "LANG fr_FR.utf8 en_US.utf8 C.UTF-8 C" \
              "LC_MESSAGES en_US.utf8 fr_FR.utf8 C.UTF-8 C" )
    available=("${(f)$(locale -a)}")
    for locale in $locales; do
        for l in $=locale[(w)2,-1]; do
            if (( ${available[(i)$l]} <= ${#available} )); then
                export $locale[(w)1]=$l
    unset LC_ALL
} 2> /dev/null

This is an interesting snippet which uses some Zsh features.

  • The use of (( $+commands[locale] )) is a way to check if the locale command exists. Briefer than if $(which locale >& /dev/null)
  • The use of an anonymous function to avoid to clutter the global environment with variables.
  • The use of word splitting. $locale[(w)1] converts $locale to an array and pops the first item. $=locale[(w)2,-1] converts $locale to an array, keeps the tail and apply word splitting to it (by default, zsh does not automatically apply word splitting to non quoted variables).

Feel free to tell me if you have found a better way to handle this problem!