I understand that e.g. catfish and gnome-search-utils both can search inside file contents that are UTF-8 encoded. To be able to search for words or numbers within text files one would have to convert them via iconv into UTF-8 first.

If the file is known, text editors like gedit or mousepad have no trouble with UTF-16.

Why is there no search tool (GUI or command-line) with any of the Linux distributions that can handle UTF-16 encoded txt files?

I'm on Xubuntu.

  • 6
    ripgrep 0.5.0 supports UTF-16, but (rant) it is a terrible encoding that should never be used, as 1) a UTF-16 string cannot be a C string if it contains any ASCII characters, 2) It is just as much a variable-width encoding as UTF-8, 3) Many tools choke on the BOM, but it is necessary to disambiguate endianness
    – Fox
    May 9, 2017 at 15:52
  • 2
    See also utf8everywhere.com
    – tripleee
    May 9, 2017 at 18:40
  • @Fox -- you would no more encode a user string in UTF-16 in C, than you would encode them in UTF-8. C only handles ASCII, and you need library functions to convert strings to(or from) UTF-8 OR UTF-16. However, I tend to agree UTF-16 is icky -- especially since it's often UCS-2 in disguise (no BOM, only supports up to Unicode-2) -- especially when talking about WindowsOS files (log files, reg files, may not have BOMs for example).
    – Astara
    Aug 25, 2017 at 2:20
  • 1
    @Astara My statement about C-strings was a quick summary of: if a character is in the subset of Unicode that overlaps with ASCII, its encoding in UTF-16 (or UCS-2) contains a null-byte. The only character containing a null-byte in UTF-8 is NUL itself. This means that you can use functions from the standard C library to read, write, copy, etc. UTF-8 strings, but not UTF-16. You won't get proper change-case support, of course, but the basics are free. In any case, this appears to be a digression from a digression
    – Fox
    Aug 25, 2017 at 2:38
  • @Fox - updating my comment: C supports characters since C90 (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C_string_handling), which includes the wchar type which supports 32-bit characters -- more than enough for UCS-2. The main problems with UTF-16 are similar to UTF-8 in that, like UTF-8, characters use a variable number of bytes (UTF-8: 1-4 bytes, UTF-16: 2-4 bytes). UCS-2 was limited to 16 bits and only supported up to, I believe, unicode-2.0.
    – Astara
    Sep 3, 2017 at 20:33

2 Answers 2


UTF-16 (or UCS-2) is highly unfriendly for the null-terminated strings used by the C standard library and the POSIX ABI. For example, command line arguments are terminated by NULs (bytes with value zero), and any UTF-16 character with numerical value < 256 contains a zero byte, so any strings of the usual English letters would be impossible to represent in UTF-16 on a command line argument.

That in turn means that either the utilities would need to take input in some other format (say UTF-8) and convert to UTF-16; or they would need to take their input in some other way. The first option would require all such utilities to contain (or link to) code for the conversion, and the second would make interfacing those programs to other utilities somewhat difficult.

Given those difficulties, and the fact that UTF-8 has better backwards-compatibility properties, I'd just guess that few care to use UTF-16 enough to be motivated to create tools for that.

  • The null termination code in UTF-16 is two null bytes in a row -- which encodes a null byte for UTF-16. If your command line handles UTF-16, then ascii (or unicode) letter 'A' would be internally represented by 0x41 \x00 (on windows x86, lower byte is always 1st, often called 'LSB' (vs. MSB). The thing in 'C', is that UTF-16 is an encoding, BELOW what the language uses. 'C' uses user strings which are automatically converted to the platform's native encoding. So a 'C' prog printing "hello world\n" works on all C-supporting platforms.
    – Astara
    Aug 25, 2017 at 2:15
  • @Astara, well, in practice, the tools that exist assume a character of 8 bits, so the first 8-bit byte with value 0 terminates the string. POSIX also defines a string as "A contiguous sequence of bytes terminated by and including the first null byte.", and that a byte is exactly the same as an octet, i.e. 8 bits. So yeah, you'd need to have a tool that explicitly supports UTF-16.
    – ilkkachu
    Aug 25, 2017 at 15:53
  • We aren't talking '8-bit' interfaces between tools -- we are talking character interterfaces between tools. Whether those characters are 8 or 32 bits internally isn't something passed out to external tools. The original question asked for a find tool to search for text in files that was UTF-16 encoded. The included version of 'find.exe' in /windows/system32, does that.
    – Astara
    Aug 26, 2017 at 0:32
  • @Astara, well, the read() and write() system calls deal in bytes, so the interpretation of a character must be done in the tool.
    – ilkkachu
    Aug 26, 2017 at 17:55
  • There are no read/write "system" calls on NT. On Win, there are 'read/write' library calls that present I/O as 8-bit chars, but on NT those library calls convert from 8 to 16-bit when talking to the system.
    – Astara
    Aug 27, 2017 at 15:44

Install ripgrep utility which supports UTF-16.

For example:

rg pattern filename

ripgrep supports searching files in text encodings other than UTF-8, such as UTF-16, latin-1, GBK, EUC-JP, Shift_JIS and more. (Some support for automatically detecting UTF-16 is provided. Other text encodings must be specifically specified with the -E/--encoding flag.)

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