Understanding locales

Most modern operating systems have a notion of the “current locale”—that is, the region or country whose localization conventions are honored. These conventions—typically chosen by some runtime configuration mechanism on the computer—affect the way in which programs present data to the user, as well as the way in which they accept user input.

On most Unix-like systems, you can check the values of the locale-related runtime configuration options by running the locale command:

$ locale
LANG=
LC_COLLATE="C"
LC_CTYPE="C"
LC_MESSAGES="C"
LC_MONETARY="C"
LC_NUMERIC="C"
LC_TIME="C"
LC_ALL="C"

The output is a list of locale-related environment variables and their current values. In this example, the variables are all set to the default C locale, but users can set these variables to specific country/language code combinations. For example, if one were to set the LC_TIME variable to fr_CA, then programs would know to present time and date information formatted according a French-speaking Canadian's expectations. And if one were to set the LC_MESSAGES variable to zh_TW, then programs would know to present human-readable messages in Traditional Chinese. Setting the LC_ALL variable has the effect of changing every locale variable to the same value. The value of LANG is used as a default value for any locale variable that is unset. To see the list of available locales on a Unix system, run the command locale -a.

On Windows, locale configuration is done via the “Regional and Language Options” control panel item. There you can view and select the values of individual settings from the available locales, and even customize (at a sickening level of detail) several of the display formatting conventions.