Improved Multi-byte Support in RTerm

Support for multi-byte characters and hence non-European languages in RTerm, the console-based front-end to R on Windows, has been improved. It is now possible to edit text including multi-byte and multi-width characters supported by the current locale, so that e.g. Japanese R users can edit a Japanese text. To appear in R 4.1.

This is a by-product of fixing RTerm to support all Unicode characters when running in UTF-8, which is already possible in experimental UCRT builds of R-devel.

Users who are interested in using RTerm with non-European languages are invited to test the new version and report bugs.


To experiment with the new RTerm in the official CRAN MSVCRT build in R-devel, install R from here or the usual places following the 4.1 release process.

To experiment with the UCRT build, see the blog post about those builds and install R from here.

The UCRT build requires UCRT, which has to be installed manually on Windows 7 and Windows 8, but is already shipped with Windows 10. Only on recent Windows 10 (November 2019 release or newer), it will use UTF-8 as the native encoding. On older Windows 10 it will use the system locale like the MSVCRT build.

When UTF-8 is used as native encoding, one needs to run chcp 65001 before running R (more below). Use l10n_info() to see if UTF-8 is the native encoding.

To test the MSVCRT build on a machine running in a European language locale, one needs to switch the locale for testing multi-byte characters. This is a system-wide setting and only should be changed with care. One can switch the display language back say to English from elevated PowerShell command line (when it becomes too difficult from the user interface):

Set-WinSystemLocale en-US
Set-WinUserLanguageList en-US -Force

The new changes have been tested in Windows 10, 8 and 7.

Console and terminals

RTerm uses the (legacy) Windows console API and is best tested in cmd.exe. It is expected to work best in cmd.exe and PowerShell.

When using UTF-8 as the native encoding, one needs to change the terminal code page to UTF-8 manually in these terminals (chcp 65001) before running RTerm. Also one needs to choose a font with the proper glyphs (e.g.  NSimFun for Asian languages).

Unicode characters can be entered via Alt+ +hexcode. E.g. to enter \u30f3 (Katakana Letter N), press and hold Alt, while holding it press + on the numpad, type 30f3, then release the Alt. One can also simply copy/paste characters to test from another application.

RTerm works less well in custom/redirection terminals, such as mintty, the default terminal in Msys2. This is closely related to limitations of the legacy Windows console design, as described in detail in this blog post series.

The legacy design does not really allow to implement custom terminals. This is only possible via a hack when the custom terminal uses a hidden console buffer and observes (detects) changes happening on it. On output, these terminals have to translate control characters into console API function calls. Mintty does not do the latter directly, but one can use winpty tool for that. In order to work in mintty, RTerm automatically invokes winpty when available. Similar problems by Windows design exist in other custom terminal applications.

One observed problem of RTerm in mintty, which existed already before the new multi-byte support, happens typically when typing fast: mintty looses control over RTerm as if it crashed and exited, but RTerm keeps spinning in the background. Sometimes, when typing fast or pasting a lot of text via OpenSSH, some characters are lost resulting in garbled line. These problems have not been observed in cmd.exe.

Recently, Windows introduced conPTY interface, which finally makes it possible to use ANSI escape sequences for control characters in streams of bytes, such as on Unix. Once winpty/mintty and other custom terminals are rewritten to support this new API, these problems with RTerm will hopefully go away, and possibly even without RTerm supporting directly conPTY, because Windows does the translation. RTerm seems to be working fine in Windows Terminal, which uses conPTY.

Even with the legacy Windows console API, RTerm needs to take care of surprising/unspecified behavior (how multi-byte characters are received, how surrogate pairs are received, how some characters not supported by the current keyboard are received, etc). Some of these things tend to change. Fixing these issues is typically quite simple, but reporting bugs is essential for that to happen.

Getline changes

RTerm uses a customized version of the getline library for line editing, originally written by Chris Thewalt. It has minimalistic requirements on the terminal and has been hence ported to many systems over the years. From control characters, it only uses \b to advance one position left, \r to return to the left-most position and \n to scroll one line down.

Getline is designed around a buffer holding the line (bytes of the text) and the current cursor position in the buffer. Edit commands, such as insertion, deletion or a cursor movement, modify the buffer and then trigger a “fixup” operation, which updates the terminal to reflect what is in the buffer and move the cursor to the desired position. As an optimization, fixup knows the minimum byte index that has changed and sometimes the maximum as well.

Getline implements scrolling within a single line. Too long text may be off the right edge (dollar sign displayed on the right end of the screen) and/or off the left edge. Hence, in getline, the edited line always takes only one line on the screen, unlike e.g. in readline.

The fixup moves the cursor left using \b to the first position that needs to be changed, then prints the characters representing the change, then prints any padding (spaces) to remove remains of the previous line, and then moves the cursor to its final location using \b (left) or emitting more characters (right), which are however already on the screen.

The library was implemented at times when a single printable byte was a single character and took a single screen position. So now it has been rewritten to reflect that characters may be multi-byte, may have different widths, and that an edit unit may be formed by multiple characters. This required significant changes to the fixup operation. To maintain mappings between screen positions, bytes and edit units, getline now has three additional maps (arrays) updated during fixup.

One consequence for scrolling is that the first byte on screen (bigger than zero when off-left) needs to be aligned to edit units, so its offset depends on what is exactly the text in the buffer. Similarly, the width of the text when off-right is not constant, but depends on the width of the complete edit units in the text that can fit to the screen. Edit operations need to change complete edit units and advance cursor to positions aligned to edit units.

Character sequences

Normally, an edit unit is formed by a single character, and this will always be the case in the CRAN builds of R 4.1. Multiple characters per unit are only relevant when using UTF-8 as native encoding, so in the experimental UCRT builds of R-devel.

An example Unicode sequence is \u63\u30c, letter c followed by a mark telling the terminal to put a caron over the letter. The same letter can be represented by \u10d, but not all sequences have a compact form.

When running in UTF-8 as native locale, RTerm on input joins any zero-width character with the previous edit unit. This allows entering a number of Unicode sequences including \u63\u30c, but not all, some sequences may be joining multiple positive-width characters, e.g.  \udc1\udca\u200d\udbb or \U1f43b\u200d\u2744.

Given the fixup operation has been implemented with sequences in mind, it should not be hard to add support for these more complicated sequences, but it currently does not seem possible to test/debug even the simpler sequences because no currently available terminal application on Windows seems to support them properly. R itself does not treat sequences in a special way, either, so some functions would provide surprising results.

Supplementary characters

RTerm now supports supplementary Unicode characters, which are those represented by surrogate pairs in UTF-16. In practice, this is only relevant to the experimental UCRT builds of R-devel, where one can actually have such characters supported by the locale (UTF-8).

Thanks to the support for supplementary characters, one can enter/paste and edit text say using Emoji characters when the terminal supports them. This was tested and worked in the Windows Terminal with the appropriate font. It also worked in a terminal running on Linux over ssh.

RTerm may have been one of the harder places to fix in R to support supplementary characters, but not the only one. At the time of this writing, even though one can use RTerm to edit a line including Emoji characters, they cannot be printed using print(). The remaining issues should be resolved before R uses UTF-8 as the native encoding on Windows.

Unlike character sequences, this limitation is specific to the Windows design of multi-byte support, where some POSIX encoding-conversion functions do not support supplementary characters. There is no problem on Linux nor macOS as they support UTF-8 natively.