Haskell with UTF-8

hGetContents: invalid argument (invalid byte sequence)
hPutChar: invalid argument (invalid character)
commitBuffer: invalid argument (invalid character)

Oh no!

Bad news: something is wrong. Good news: it is not necessarily an issue with your code, it can be one of the libraries or build tools that you depend on.

Yes, really. Haskell tools you are using every day have a problem that can cause this confusing error to show up. Here is a (definitely incomplete) list of projects still affected:

And these are the projects where it was, hopefully, fixed:

This is to announce that we have published a new Haskell library called with-utf8 and we hope that it will help solve this kind of problems once and for all. You can find everything you need to start using it in your projects in its documentation on Hackage, while this post offers a slightly more detailed explanation of what is going on and the reasoning behind some of the design decisions we made.

What we all can do is raise awareness, and from now on try our best to write Haskell programs (and especially Haskell tooling) that will work correctly on the first try. For this, we only need to:

  1. Understand the root cause.
  2. Develop a universal mitigation strategy.

Why it happens

Unicode is easy

People speak many different languages and languages use different alphabets. To be able to work with characters from all these alphabets, people invented Unicode. Unicode is basically a huge collection (repertoire) of all characters present in all alphabets that ever existed and then some more.

Most modern programming languages have their Char (or equivalent) type support the full range of Unicode, and Haskell is not an exception. This is a great thing, as it means that your program that greets the user will be equally happy to greet a John, an Иван, and a たろう:

main :: IO ()
main = putStrLn "Name: " *> getLine >>= putStrLn . ("Hello, " <>)
$ ./greet
Hello, Кирилл

Character encodings are hard

As a software developer, you know that everything in the computer is made of zeroes and ones, therefore there needs to be a way to represent this enormous repertoire of characters as sequences of bytes. This is what a character encoding (aka “character set”, aka “code page”) does.

Back in the day people used encodings such as latin1, cp1256, and koi8-r. The weird thing about these is that each of them supports only a subset of whole Unicode, and, for some reason, for a long time everyone was OK with that (well, to be fair, Unicode did not yet exist back then, and the Internet was not very popular). There is no place for anything like that in the 21st century.

Nowadays we have UTF-8, which can encode all of Unicode, and we also have UTF-16 and UTF-32… Wait, what? Excuse me, why are there three (actually, five) of them? The short answer is: UTF-32 (being a fixed-length encoding) can be useful in rare algorithms where you need constant-time access to individual characters, and UTF-16 was a mistake.

The problem with text

While you are in the world of your high-level programming language, you’ve got this nice abstraction where strings are just sequences of chars, and chars are, you know, just characters, things you can compare to each other, call toUpper on, stuff like that.

However, the usefulness of your programs comes from the fact that they communicate with the external world: they get data from stdin, files, network sockets, do some processing and then write the answer back. And it is exactly at this border with the real world where truly scary things start to happen.

For historical reasons, operating systems do not provide an abstraction for human-readable text, and thus they always give your program raw bytes and expect raw bytes in response: bytes come from the user’s terminal, bytes are stored in the file system, bytes travel over the network. This is perfectly fine most of the time as your programs work with binary formats and protocols anyway.

But sometimes you might encounter just text. The two most prolific examples are:

  1. files that contain source code and
  2. console input/output.

In order to turn bytes into text and vice versa, one needs to know which character encoding to use. You probably don’t think about this too often, do you? You just call putStrLn or hGetContents and let your language handle this. But, hold on a second… really, which encoding will it use? As you have probably guessed already, the answer is not “always UTF-8” – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Haskell defaults

In Haskell, every file handle has an encoding associated with it; you can query it using hGetEncoding, and change using hSetEncoding from System.IO. If you don’t explicitly set it though, it gets initialised with an encoding derived from the current locale configured in the operating system.

On Linux, the default locale is determined by the LC_* environment variables, the ones that the locale command outputs. You can see this with the help of a tiny Haskell program:

import GHC.IO.Encoding (getLocaleEncoding)

main :: IO ()
main = getLocaleEncoding >>= print

Save it as encoding.hs, compile, and run:

$ ./encoding

$ LANG=C ./encoding

$ LANG=ru_RU.koi8r ./encoding

This behaviour certainly seems to make sense. However, I can think of another behaviour that would make sense too: just always use UTF-8, right? In order to decide which one is better, we’ll have to dive into specific use-cases.

A text file

As I said, most protocols and file formats do a good job specifying how exactly the bytes should be interpreted, however there is one pretty wide-spread file format that does not: plain-text.

When you see a plain-text file, there is no way for you to know what encoding it uses. In fact, if you come from a non-English-speaking country, chances are, you are old enough to remember trying a bunch of different encodings in your text editor when opening a file until one of them happens to work.

Indeed, as a person using a text editor to write down some thoughts, you don’t really care what exact encoding your text editor uses as long as it uses it consistently (that is, you can close the file, open it later, and it will be readable). And you probably want to be able to open the file with a different editor. As long as all your editors are using the same encoding, for example, the one specified in your system locale, everything will be good.

Oh, wait. It’s 2020. Maybe you also want others to be able to read your files, even if they live in countries different from yours. Now it is starting to look like always using UTF-8, even if you or your friend have some weird locale configured, might be a better choice. Luckily, nowadays UTF-8 is the de facto standard for text files, so if you see a text file that has been created in the past 10 years or so, it is almost certainly encoded in UTF-8.

A file encoded as UTF-8 opened in vim

Everything above applies to source code as well. Except that specifications of some languages actually restrict the set of characters valid in source code to ASCII, which have the unique property that they are encoded by the same sequences of bytes in almost all existing encodings (including UTF-8), so you can decode such a file using almost any encoding and the result will be the same. Some other specifications explicitly say that source code must be encoded in UTF-8. But we are talking Haskell here, and, surprisingly, the Language Report only says that the syntax uses Unicode, but does not mention any encodings at all, leaving it all to the compilers.

Well, our favourite Haskell compiler – GHC – assumes source files are encoded in UTF-8. Well, strictly speaking, it truly ignores comments, which are allowed to contain sequences invalid in UTF-8, but thinking about someone using this “feature” gives me chills.

Bottom line: in year 2020, all text files should be decoded as UTF-8, especially those that contain source code, especially those that contain Haskell source code. And the user’s locale is not relevant at all.

The console

Working with the console is similar to working with a file: your program can write some text to a special handle and the operating system will relay it to the user’s terminal. Whatever the user types in their terminal you can read from another special handle.

The important difference with text files is that the text shown on a terminal is meant to communicate some information and then disappear forever. For this reason, it is not very important what encoding it uses.

However, there is a complication: there is another program involved in the process of using the console – it is the user’s terminal emulator, the graphical application that actually renders the console on the screen. In order to pick the right symbols from the font, it needs to know how to decode the bytes coming from your program through the OS into human-readable text. For this, it needs to know which encoding to use.

This encoding is configured somewhere in the settings of your terminal emulator. You probably knew about this configuration option, but you have long forgotten about its existence, and rightfully so, as, most likely, you will never need to use it, as it is already set to the most universal value of all: UTF-8.

The problem here is that if you blindly output UTF-8 to the user’s terminal and it was configured to use a different encoding for some reason, you might end up getting some жопа or screwing the terminal entirely. The safest assumption to make is that the terminal emulator uses the same encoding as the locale of the operating system (well, otherwise it would be hard for the user to even read localised messages from standard system utilities).

What to do, though, if you really want to output a character that is not encodable in the locale’s encoding and, thus, impossible to render on the screen? Unfortunately, your only choice is to replace it with something else.

This restriction is especially hard on software development tools, since, even if they correctly set the encoding on files they read and write, they still need to worry about the characters that they show on the screen. In fact, GHC itself was bitten exactly by this: it did a good job reading source files as UTF-8 regardless of the locale, but if there was a type-checking error in a definition whose name was unrepresentable in the locale’s encoding, it would crash trying to display the error on the screen.

A Haskell program outputing Unicode to the console

Oh, by the way, exactly this problem is still present in Haddock and you now know enough to make it crash on Linux. Save this file:

module Hahahaddock where

domaĝo :: String
domaĝo = "pity"

and run haddock on it with LANG=C. It will crash trying to say the name of the definition that is missing documentation.

Non-UTF-8 locales

Why would your program ever be used on a system with a locale that uses an encoding that is not UTF-8?

Well, the simplest thing you can do is to give your program to a Windows user. You’ll be surprised how hard Microsoft is trying not to do the right thing and simply use UTF-8 everywhere (well, if you followed the link to UTF-8 Everywhere above, then you would’t be surprised at this point). There are still a lot of Windows installations that use various esoteric character encodings (or “code pages” as they call them). That is the reason why a lot of the encoding-related issues are reported by Windows users, and that’s actually great, because it helps solve the problem. Unfortunately, sometimes the solutions are not well-thought-out, such as this fix to a real problem affecting everyone, bashfully hidden behind #if defined(mingw32_HOST_OS) for no good reason at all.

Another reason to unset the locale to C is reproducible builds. That is why another source of encoding-related bug reports is Nix users. Current locale settings can affect the build process in subtle ways, such as change the format of dates or the sorting order for strings. It’s just weird to think that a build tool may output different results depending on the locale of the system it is used on, so people preparing builds for others prefer not to give it even a chance and change locale to the most universal and simple one – C. Sadly, this has a consequence of changing the locale encoding to ASCII. Even more sadly, there does not exist a standardised locale which would behave like C but have UTF-8 as its default encoding. Debian’s C.UTF-8 is one attempt at standardising this, but it is not yet as widespread as it should be.

Better defaults

I hope you can agree now that the defaults chosen by GHC are not optimal, as evidenced by the plague of encoding-related issues in the Haskell world. Here is a more reliable strategy.

Text files always in UTF-8

Whenever your program opens a text file, in 99.9% of all cases you really want it to be treated as UTF-8. Calling hSetEncoding on every file after opening is not very convenient. Luckily, there is an easier way.

As you remember, GHC creates new file handles with the encoding taken from getLocaleEncoding. All we have to do is call setLocaleEncoding utf8! Now all files opened in text mode will automatically use UTF-8, and you can still change it to something else on individual files if you really need to. Of course, this is only a good idea in your own executable; if you are creating a library, changing program-global defaults is a no-no.

Unknown handles require caution

If your library function accepts a handle as an argument and then writes to it, it is very likely that you expect this handle to be a file handle rather than a terminal device (unless, of course, you are developing a library that is directly related to showing information to the user on their screen, such as a CLI toolkit).

In this case, you want to make sure the encoding is UTF-8, however, if for some reason it happens so that the handle is connected to a terminal, you are in trouble because you never want to change the encoding of text shown on the screen by the terminal emulator. Luckily, you can use hIsTerminalDevice to detect this situation.

What do you do if it is a terminal device? Well, you have to replace all unencodable characters with something else. I have good news again: you will not need to change your function at all – the iconv library that GHC uses under the hood has you covered and it can approximate (aka transliterate) those bad characters for you. All you have to do is change the encoding of the handle to a newly created one, which you make by taking the name of the old encoding and appending //TRANSLIT to it.

Keep standard handles intact

The three standard handles – stdin, stdout, and stderr – are normally used for interacting with the user. When they are attached to a terminal, there is no question, you have to transliterate them. But what if, say, stdout is not attached to a terminal? This situation is tricky, and you will have to guess what the user wants to do with the output of your program.

If the output of your program is informational and only useful for a short period of time, then you probably don’t want to try to encode it in UTF-8. The reason is simple: if the user pipes the output through something like grep, your stdout will not be connected to a terminal, but the output will end up on the terminal anyway.

On the other hand, if your program is meant to process text files and supports printing the resulting new file to standard output, then you do want to encode it in UTF-8, as long as the standard output is not connected to a terminal but rather redirected to a file. In this case, you can just treat the standard handle as any other unknown handle passed to your code from somewhere else.


All of the above is implemented in with-utf8.

I invite you to take a look at its Hackage documentation, but to quickly sum it up:

  • The withUtf8 function is a wrapper around your main that will call setLocaleEncoding and reconfigure standard descriptors so that they don’t cause a runtime error no matter what you write in them.
  • If you can’t change the program-global locale encoding, there is Utf8.withFile (and Utf8.openFile) that will set the encoding on the file it opens to UTF-8.
  • If you have to work with a handle of an unknown origin and you expect it to be a file, you can call Utf8.withHandle to temporarily switch it to UTF-8 if it is safe to do so, or enable approximation otherwise.
  • If you have to work with a handle of an unknown origin and you are reasonably sure that it is supposed to be a terminal, use Utf8.withTerminalHandle to only enable approximation, regardless of whether it points to a terminal or not.
  • There are also Utf8.readFile and Utf8.writeFile, just in case you need them.
Galaxy brain with UTF-8

Please, consider using UTF-8 and with-utf8 in your next project, update your old projects, re-export it from your custom prelude, send a link to UTF-8 Everywhere and this blog post to your colleagues and friends, report and fix encoding-related bugs in Haskell tools that you are using. Together we can defeat invalid argument (invalid byte sequence)!

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