Writing Spanish on Your Computer

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Characters needed to write Spanish.The following non-English characters are needed to write Spanish: á é í ó ú ü Ü ñ Ñ ¿ ¡. In addition, accent marks should be used on capital letters, although not all Spanish printers do so: Á É Í Ó Ú. Finally, there are the special characters º and ª, which are sometimes used in forming ordinal numbers (like 2nd, 2º in Spanish), but are not required. In Europe, quotation marks are written as « and », but these are not required..

Your computer can already write all of these!

Confusion. Different computer platforms (MS-DOS, Windows, Unix, Macintosh) handle non-English characters differently. There is, to date, no single, universally-followed standard like the ASCII standard for English characters. This problem especially affects e-mail.

E-mail. Unfortunately, e-mail is written and received on very different computers. Special characters written on one type of computer (one operating system) are frequently misread by computers using another operating system. If you have ever received e-mail messages with "garbage" characters in them, this is probably the reason.

If you are using the Windows operating system (any version), you can follow the methods below when sending Spanish characters to another user who uses Windows. Similarly, a Macintosh user can send Spanish characters to another Macintosh user.

If you're sending a message to a broad audience, or you're not sure the recipient uses the same operating system you do, avoid non-English characters in e-mail messages. Work-arounds used in sending e-mail in Spanish include the following:

HTML. Fortunately, HTML has a standard 256-character set that is universal. In this environment, the problem of transmitting and receiving Spanish is solved.

All recent HTML editors include the facility to include these characters. (For example, HotMetal Pro 4.0, on which I am composing this page, displays a clickable table of them by choosing Special Characters on the Insert menu.) Programs which convert (export) into HTML will also handle these characters correctly. All recent browsers will display them correctly on whatever computer the browser is installed on.

Some e-mail programs can send and receive HTML-coded e-mail. If both sender and recipient have this capability, the problems of cross-platform incompatibilty are resolved.

What operating system and version do you use? If you´re using Windows, the version is displayed on your start-up screen. You can also open Windows Explorer (found on Start Menu - Programs) and on the Help menu, click on the entry that says "About." The operating system and version are displayed. If you don't have a Start Menu, but do have a File Manager, or Program Manager, open it, click on Help, and the bottom entry, About Program Manager or About File Manager, will tell you what version of Windows you have.

What version of your word processor do you use? With Windows programs, go to the Help menu of your program, and choose the "About" item for this information. With DOS versions of WordPerfect, press Help (F3 or F1) and the information will be found in the upper right of the screen.

There are three ways of writing diacritics using the Microsoft Windows operating system:

Installing a different soft keyboard through the application program.

Using the application program's technique for inserting special characters, one at a time.

You can also use the Alt + number pad combinations described below.

MS-DOS users: some of your options are less convenient.

WordPerfect 6.0 and 6.1. Will be added on request.

Macintosh Operating System. If you are a Macintosh user, send me the information on writing Spanish, and I'll post it here.


ASCII: Stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange." A standard developed in the 1970's for helping computers to communicate with each other. Since computers at that time were almost exclusively using English, the code paid little attention to foreign languages. In fact, it was designed with programming symbols in mind.

ASCII consists of 128 characters, including codes to control simple machines (bell, tab, cancel, end of file, and the like), most of which are no longer used.. For European languages other than English, it includes the keys you see on the typical computer keyboard: ^ (circumflex accent), ` (grave accent), ~ (tilde, which in foreign languages is located above the characters, but which programmers turned into a vertically-centered symbol). Unfortunately, the acute accent was combined with the apostrophe ('). To print these characters, printers would overstrike the diacritic and the letter.

I'm not including a table of ASCII characters, because they are the ones already on a standard (U.S.) computer keyboard, including [ ] { } \ | ' " < > - _ = +, and the symbols found above the numbers. Note that there were also unofficial adaptations of the 128-character ASCII for different languages, but they are rarely seen today.

The problem, a serious one causing much confusion, is that there is no standard for the 256-character sets used on all MS-DOS, Windows, and Macintosh computers. (Sometimes the term "ASCII" is misued to refer to them.) There are many new standard character sets developed and registered with the International Standards Organization, such as the PC-Graphics set designed by IBM. HTML has its own set. None of these sets has wide enough use to resolve the problem of conflicting standards. Macintosh, for example, has a quite different set than IBM. A new universal standard, Unicode, was developed in the 1990's and will eventually resolve the incompatiblity problem. It is far from generally adapted as of this writing (1998).

HTML. Hypertext Markup Language, the language of the Internet.

Diacritics: the linguist's name for symbols combined with letters, such as the ~ in Spanish and the ^ in French. All accent marks are diacritics, but not all diacritics are accent marks.

Physical Spanish Keyboards, Keys, and Key Labels. Added at user request. A different physical keyboard only makes sense if you are planning to use a Spanish soft keyboard, as described above, and to use it permanently as your only keyboard, because Spanish is the only language to be written on the computer in question. If you are going to use the U.S.-International keyboard, or write in English much of the time, a change in physical keyboards will create as many problems as it solves.

On request, here is the best vendor I could find for actual Spanish keyboards. I say "best" because this vendor offers both the greatest variety and the lowest price keyboard, as well as the most informative site. I have no experience with this vendor at all and am making no endorsement. Please forward to me information on other vendors, or comments on this one, and I'll post them here.

Fingertip Software offers two Spanish language physical keyboards:

Behavior Tech Computer Keyboard 5549K - $39

Keytouch Keyboard KT-95 - $29.

Click here for an image, from Fingertip's site, of the arrangement of characters on a Spanish physical keyboard.

You'll notice that there are some keys that have three different characters. This is standard. The third character is accessed by an Alt + Shift combination (sorry, I don't know the exact details).

Other options. One is to buy stick-on labels for the keys, that you can apply to your present keyboard. The lowest price I've seen is also from Fingertip: $12.

Also, you can buy replacement keys. (All keys but the spacebar will pop off and on easily.) Doing a web search for vendors turned up CustomKeys, which sells Spanish keys (not keyboards). Again, I know nothing about this vendor other than what is on the web page. Send me your experiences, or recommendations of other vendors, and I'll post them here.

Equatorial Guinea, or Guinea Ecuatorial in Spanish. The least-known Spanish-speaking country and former colony of Spain. It is located in west central Africa, north of Angola.. It is a member of the United Nations. Link to Equatorial Guinea page.

Traditional Sort: refers to the way the alphabet is sorted (alphabetized). "Traditional Sort" means that ch and ll are sorted as one letter, the ch between the c and d, the llbetween the l and m. With the "Spanish - Modern Sort" keyboard, they are sorted as two letters each. See Le sson 1. The sorting in question would be done by a word processor or indexing program, not Windows itself. You will probably never have occasion to sort in Spanish.

Dead Key: the name comes from the days of mechanical typewriters. Since it was not practical to have separate keys for both a and á, e and é and so on, the diacritical mark (accent, ~, or ¨) was placed on a key by itself. The accent and the letter were overstruck (printed superimposed), as was also done in the early days of computerized word processing. The accented key was called a "dead key" because it did not move the carriage forward.

With software "keyboards," the dead key does the same as on a typewriter. One presses it, but nothing is shown on the screen. When one presses the letter, the diacritical mark appears on top of the letter.

Ç. This letter, called the c cedilla (the cedilla is the tail underneath) is included for use in writing French, as are the ^ and ` dead keys. France of course shares a border with Spain, so contacts can be close. The ç is used in some English words borrowed from French, such as façade.

Technical Note on "Languages," "Regional Settings," and "Keyboard Layouts" in Windows 95 and NT 4.0. Each selection under Control Panel - Keyboard - Language (Input Locales, in NT 4.0) actually consists of two items: a "Regional Setting," confusingly called "Language" in Windows 95 (Control Panel - Keyboard - Language window), and a Keyboard Layout setting. The "Regional Setting" is seen more completely under Control Panel - Regional. The choice of "Language" under the Control Panel - Keyboard window turns up as a change in "Regional Setting" under the Control Panel - Regional window, and vice versa. What has been changed can be seen under Control Panel - Regional: number, currency, time, and date formats. In other words, with the Spanish-Traditional Sort or other Spanish "Language/Regional Setting" selected, a date automatically generated by an application program, such as Windows' accessory program WordPad, appears as days/month/year, whereas under the English-U.S. "Language/Regional Setting" it appears as month/days/year.

A part of each "Language/Regional Setting" choice is a Keyboard Layout selection. A default selection is already made, but can be changed. To see or change the default selection, choose Control Panel - Keyboard - Language (Input Locales, in NT 4.0) - Properties.

Windows 95 will not allow you to install a second copy of "English - United States" with a different Keyboard Layout. To install a second Keyboard Layout, so that you can switch between U.S. 101 key (standard) and U.S.-International, you must first install an alternate "Language/Regional Setting."

WIN NT 4.0 will allow you to install a second copy of "English - United States" with a different keyboard layout.

Ü and ü with Microsoft Word 97. On my keyboard, contrary to Microsoft Word's help file, I had to type CTRL + SHIFT + : (together), then release them and type the u, to get ü. But to get Ü, I had to type CTRL + SHIFT + : + U together (without releasing).

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This page Copyright © 1998 Daniel Eisenberg. Please report errors or omissions: daniel.eisenberg@bigfoot.com. ¡Mil gracias!