I'm using zsh and gdm to run gnome. Some time ago I discovered that variables are not set correctly. For example LANG/LC_ALL are incorrect ("" instead of en_GB.UTF-8).

I split the .zshrc into .zshrc and .profile. In the latter I set the environment variables, but how can I set the variables before the session starts? I tried a few choices (.xinitrc, .xsessionrc) but none seemed to work.

Edit To clarify - I used .profile and manually sourced it in .zshrc. It does not change question anyway.

  • Is your .profile not loaded at all, or is something else overwriting the locale variables? (Try setting some other variable like export MACIEJ_PROFILE=yes to make sure. set -x in .profile may be a good way to check what is being executed in and after .profile, if it's read at all.) There is no point in sourcing .profile from .zshrc. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Dec 7 '10 at 23:40
  • Is this a problem in terminal windows or elsewhere? Do you get your desired locale settings when you run ssh localhost zsh? What about ssh localhost bash? If bash is ok but not zsh, maybe you put something in /etc/zshenv or ~/.zshenv (which is pretty much always a bad idea). – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Dec 8 '10 at 0:02
  • No the shell is working OK (before and after split). The problem is that gnome-session does not have this variebles set. – Maciej Piechotka Dec 8 '10 at 11:39

The simple way is to invent a time machine, visit the various people who devised shell startup files and tell them to cleanly distinguish between three things:

  • session setup, e.g. environment variables;
  • session launching, i.e., e.g. starting a command-line shell or a window manager or running startx;
  • shell initialization, e.g. aliases, prompt, key bindings.

It's not too hard to get session vs. shell right in a portable way: login-time initialization goes into .profile (or .zprofile, or .login), shell initialization goes in .bashrc or .zshrc. I've previously written about .bash_profile, zsh vs. other shells, more about portability (mostly about bash), more about who reads .profile.

A remaining problem is distinguishing between session setup and session launching. In most cases, ~/.profile is executed when you log in and can double as both, but there are exceptions:

  • If your login shell is (t)csh or zsh, ~/.login and ~/.zprofile is sourced instead of ~/.profile. Ditto for bash and ~/.bash_profile, but this is easily solved by sourcing ~/.profile from ~/.bash_profile.
  • If you log in under a display manager (xdm, gdm, kdm, …), whether your ~/.profile is read depends on the version of the program, on your distribution (Linux or otherwise), and on what session type you choose.
    • If you count on the display manager to start a session for you, your .profile must set environment variables but not start a session (e.g. a window manager).
    • The traditional configuration file for X sessions is ~/.xsession, doing both session setup and session launching. So the file can be essentially . ~/.xsession; . ~/.xinitrc. Some distributions source ~/.profile before ~/.xsession. Modern distributions only source ~/.xsession when you select a “custom” session from the display manager, and such a session is not always available.
    • Your session manager may have its own way of setting environment variables. (That's an optional part of your desktop environment, chosen by you through a configuration file or by selecting a session type when logging in; don't confuse it with the session startup scripts provided by the display manager, which are executed under your user but chosen on a system-wide basis. Yes, it's a mess.)

In summary, ~/.profile is the right place for environment variables. If it's not read, try sourcing it from ~/.xsession (and start your X programs from there), or look for a system-specific method (which may depend on your distribution, display manager if any, session type if display manager, and desktop environment or session manager).

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  • .xsession was the file I was looking for. – Maciej Piechotka Dec 8 '10 at 11:45
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    I agree strongly with everything except your summary. I don't think you established this point. If your .profile sources .bashrc or similar, then you can reliably set environment variables in .bashrc for not only login sessions, but for new shells that need different settings, e.g. if you start an xterm from gnome-terminal and want different dircolors. – Mikel Jun 2 '12 at 3:06
  • @Mikel If you set environment variables in .bashrc, they will override your previous settings. For example, if you've started a Screen or Tmux instance with particular environment variables, anything you set in .bashrc will override these settings. LS_COLORS is a special case because it's really a per-terminal setting; ideally it should be set by the terminal emulator, and setting it in a shell rc file is a best-effort workaround. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jun 2 '12 at 13:41

In Gentoo documentation there is article Gentoo Linux Localization Guide. Chapter 3 is about setting locale.

Most typically users only set the LANG variable on the global basis. This example is for a unicode German locale:

Code Listing 3.1: Setting the default system locale in /etc/env.d/02locale


In my Gentoo LANG is set in this file and everything is working properly...

pbm@tauri ~ $ cat /etc/env.d/02locale 

pbm@tauri ~ $ locale
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  • Beware that the part you quoted is ok, but the guide also recommends setting an environment variable in .bashrc, which is wrong (see my answer and in particular superuser.com/questions/217431). – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Dec 7 '10 at 20:50
  • Thanks for so detailed info... :) I've never used that .bashrc part - settings in env.d are more universal. – pbm Dec 7 '10 at 21:00
  • Also it is per system instead of per-user. I prefer to keep system settings separate from user settings. – Maciej Piechotka Dec 7 '10 at 22:47

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