Wrapping GtkImContext

So, recently I’ve started working on a text editor, using Gtk, via gtkmm in C++. I’ve decided to try my hand at writing the text area widget from scratch, just using the text layout facilities provided by Gtk’s Pango. My rationale for this is twofold:

  1. It seems that Gtk’s TextView widget is missing a few nice things, like source lines, and using the more developed SourceView is not doing a lot of the work myself.
  2. I like the idea of working with lower level parts of the text editor, since my main goal for the project is to learn new things.

It’s been pretty smooth sailing so far, although right now the only thing the editor can do is display a string, and let the user tack on more characters at the end:


For the most part, the gtkmm bindings turn the awkward GObject system into a nice C++ class hierarchy. Regardless of your opinions on class hierarchies, they do work nicely for GUIs. Having each type of widget be a class, and using inheritance to modify the behavior of widgets seems like an ideal case study for OOP.

On the other hand, the GObject system, a way of tacking on an object-oriented type system and runtime onto C types, seems a bit heavy-handed and awkward, and the C++ wrapper helps alleviate this awkwardness quite a bit.

Unfortunately, not every part of Gtk has a nice wrapper, especially the more obscure or low-level parts. This week, I had to manually write a wrapper for one of these parts, namely: GtkImContext.

Text Input

So, the custom text area wants to process the characters the user types in. To do that, it needs to listen to keypress events, and then react to them.

So, if a user hits the key a, then we need to add the character 'a' at the current position in the editor. If the user holds shift and hits the same character, we see SHIFT + a, and we can add 'A' to the buffer.

For English text, at least when it comes to programming, you can actually input all the characters you want using single key combinations. Because of this, it might seem that we can simply map each key press to either adding a single character to the buffer, doing something like deleting a character in the buffer, or something else like a shortcut for an action.

The problem is that “one keypress -> one character” is actually not true. As a simple example, take the character 'ä'. I use a US-alt-international keyboard layout, so to input this accented character, I press SHIFT+' (for ") and then a. To type out just the double quote, I need to type out SHIFT+', and then a space.

Because of this, it takes potentially two keypresses in order to generate a single character of input.

It can get even more complicated then this, with some languages, like Japanese, requiring arbitrarily many presses for a single character, and allowing the user to resolve ambiguities manually, using additional keypresses.

We need some way of feeding in these keypresses somewhere, and then getting out completed characters when we can form the keypresses into combined characters. GtkImContext is used to do precisely this.

A C++ Wrapper

Unfortunately, GtkImContext doesn’t have a C++ wrapper in gtkmm. Well, I couldn’t manage to find one. This means that I had to write my own wrapper. I’m not very well familiar with gtkmm, and how to wrap gtk classes in the most idiomatic way, so I just went with the simplest wrapper that would work for my purposes.

It looks something like this:

class ImContext {
    GtkIMContext *_ctx;

    sigc::signal<void, ustring> _signal_commit;

    friend void commit_cb(GtkIMContext *, const gchar *str, gpointer data);



    bool on_key_press(GdkEventKey *key_event);

    sigc::signal<void, ustring> signal_commit();

We have a constructor, a destructor, pretty standard. Then our main method is on_key_press which processes keypresses, and then returns true if it’s consumed the press, otherwise false if it couldn’t use it, and we might want to do something else with it later. Then we have a signal which produces a ustring, which is just Gtk’s way of doing unicode strings.

The idea is that we can subscribe to the commit signal to do something when this context manages to combine multiple keypresses into a single character, which is then returned as a unicode string through the signal. This is just a getter around the _signal_commit member.

Then we have the commit_cb function, which is just a hack to be able to have a Gtk C style callback reach into the state of the class.

In terms of the implementation, the constructor and destructor are pretty simple:

ImContext::ImContext() {
    _ctx = gtk_im_context_simple_new();
    g_signal_connect(_ctx, "commit", G_CALLBACK(commit_cb), this);

ImContext::~ImContext() {

We use the methods from the C library to create and free our wrapped object. We also connect the commit signal on the underlying object to the callback I mentioned earlier, which has access to the internal state of our class, and can forward the results of the C signal through the signal we defined as a member of our class:

void commit_cb(GtkIMContext *, const gchar *str, gpointer data) {
    auto ctx = reinterpret_cast<ImContext *>(data);

Note how earlier we passed this as the final argument to g_signal_connect, and this is what shows up as the gpointer data argument. We can then cast this to a pointer to our class, and work with it normally. This is kind of a hack, but was the simplest way I figured out to be able to have a C style callback have access to class internals.

Processing key presses is just a matter of delegating to the C library:

bool ImContext::on_key_press(GdkEventKey *key_event) {
    return gtk_im_context_filter_keypress(_ctx, key_event);


Overall this was just a simple update, but I think it was worth sharing this information, because figuring out how to tie all the loose knots in terms of writing a wrapper for Gtk objects was quite tricky, especially figuring out how to get a class method (sort of) as a callback for a signal.

Hopefully this is useful to somebody, someday. I wish there was a post like this a few days ago when I had 234 tabs open trying to figure this out :)