Sunday, March 29, 2009


I'm thinking about keyboards.

Many of you have probably heard about the design of the QWERTY keyboard. It was designed by trial and error by a man trying to minimize jamming of metal type arms on the machine he was using - essentially, to make typing slow, and to keep commonly used keys as far from one another as possible. One of many historical examples of necessity trumping our desire for a design of optimal efficiency.

The Dvorak keyboard, by contrast, was designed for ease of use - but it never really caught on, because the QWERTY was already so well-established. Somewhere out there is a land of alternative technologies we all missed out on by chance: the clocks that turn counter-clockwise, the betamax video recorders, the Dvorak keyboards... Mind you, there are those who use the Dvorak keyboard even now, but it's pretty clear who the winner was. I'm so accustomed to the QWERTY by now that I have a devil of a time with the alphabetically ordered key-sets that are often used on children's video games to type in the child's name.

I learned to type by taking a class when I was twelve. I remember at the time that my brother, who was just over a year younger, fudged his age to twelve also so he could enter the class (it was for ages 12 and up). Needless to say, he handled it just fine, and both of us can now touch-type. This is something for which I am constantly grateful (thanks, Mom!).

Now, my children are learning to use the computer. My daughter, who is not yet four, can point, click and drag the mouse, and she hunts and pecks the letters she knows (and touch-types the letters she doesn't know, in joyous profusion!). My son knows all the letters and is able to type his name, his logins and his passwords when necessary. My immediate thought?

I'd better not wait till they're twelve to teach them to type! By then it will already be far too late.

When I was living in Japan, I once had an opportunity to visit the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. One of the most fascinating things I saw there was the old keyboards they used to type the newspaper.

Oh. My. God.

First let me note that there was a big battle about restricting the number of characters that could be used in the newspaper. The final conclusion of this battle, after many years, was to fix the number of characters at just under two thousand.

Imagine this keyboard. It had to be eighteen inches square at least, with an array of big keys - each containing as many as nine characters - and a small numeric keypad in the bottom right-hand corner. For each character to be typed, the operator would have to pick the character by typing first the number of the desired character, and then hitting the key upon which that character appeared. This thing required an operator who had not only complete knowledge of the character set, but also loads of training and experience.

Nowadays, the Japanese use word processors. First, you type in the sounds you want, either by romanization or by fixed location of the syllabic character on the keyboard. Then you press the space bar, and the computer automatically brings up a list of all the possible characters that can be substituted for the sounds you've typed. All you have to do is pick the one you want, either by typing the number beside it or by scrolling down to it and hitting return. This is a real help, but at the same time it has made it so easy to pick the correct character, that often Japanese young people are able to recognize characters without actually being able to write them from memory.

I think it's really interesting how technological changes can affect behavior.

Now, imagine the technology of your fantasy or science fiction world. If you have a created language, the appearance of script is going to depend a lot on what kind of technology is used for writing. A keyboard has certain kinds of restrictions. It doesn't lend itself well to cursive - but on the other hand, if it is connected to a computer rather than to a piece of metal type, it can have more flexibility. I think it would be safe to guess that Arabic word processors are able to provide the correct form of the character - word-initial, word-medial, or word-final - simply by computer logic. The way that a keyboard works will influence the way that people conceptualize their alphabet and their literacy. Type generally implies the common availability of text, for example.

It's getting late, so I'll leave you all at this point to theorize about how to use this further. Let me just say this: type might be under the radar, or seem unimportant - but it might just provide a pungent detail to make your alien world and language seem more real.


  1. One of many historical examples of necessity trumping our desire for a design of optimal efficiency.

    There is no such thing as optimal efficiency, only efficiency in achieving certain desired goals [effectiveness]. The VS/Beta battle was one. Beta was indeed superior at picture fidelity. But the people buying the system were using it to record TV shows to watch later, after which they would record over them. VHS allowed them to tape up to 3 hours of shows. Beta would not. Record-and-erase three hour capability mattered more to the customer than hi fi pictures of ultimately forgettable TV shows. Of course, now even VHS has lost out to DVD.

    The same is true of QWERTY vs Dvorak, and of most such instances where what the geeks think the better system lost out to what users thought was the better system.

    I've often wondered why ideographic keyboards did not utilize the keystroke=brushstroke system. Stroke-stroke-stroke-character return-space-..... I think because the idea of a typewriter or linotype was not native to the culture and the examples they saw from alphabetic cultures had keystroke=complete symbol.

  2. This is true, Mike - and sometimes really neither way would have been more efficient, but one of them won out by sheer momentum anyway.

    Interesting question about a key-stroke approach to ideographs. I suspect the answer has to do with the fact that these are thought of as single entities most of the time. It may also have to do with the paradoxical efficiency of the ideographic system, which is that provided you know all the characters, you can recognize and read each meaning unit very quickly (even given whole-word recognition, I think it has a slight edge over the alphabetical system which builds words up in sequecne). So a person who knew the whole system would probably find the single-character single-keystroke method more in keeping with his or her mental model of reading.

  3. Mike, I'm curious what the advantage of QWERTY would be in a world without manual typewriters?

    I went through a period in college where I experimented with Dvorak. It was amazing to me how quickly I could get my numbers up. It was *so* much easier, because your strong and independent fingers are doing most of the work, rather than you sad, weak ring and pinkie fingers. Seriously, no hand cramping. The problem for me was that my QWERTY fluency suffered, and I would often have to use PC's (it was easy to switch back and forth between keyboards with mac) where Dvorak wasn't an option. The bonus I would get for keeping my QWERTY speed over 90 wpm as a temp made me abandon the experiment.

    I teach HS and all my students are very comfortable on keyboard. They have never been taught to type and don't use their weak fingers or a home position, but are comfortably fast. They're impressed when they see me touch type, but they think it's kind of a party trick. When we did "Millie" I actually had to correct them on stage, lol. Of course they can text on an alpha keyboard with their thumbs at speeds that seem amazing to me, and keep asking why a keyboard can't just be laid out that way. I expect to see alpha keyboards appealing to this generation in the next decade. Hopefully they won't completely change things over and leave me without keyboard access in my old age!


  4. Mike, one keystroke=one brushstroke, or perhaps penstroke, might work well for the communication/representational system I'm pondering for Nova Britannia. It would be particularly well adapted to a keyboard connected to monitor screen and/or lazar or ink jet printer (no keys striking paper but a continuous flow). Thanks.

    Juliette, since you're interested in keyboards and representational systems, you might want to look into braille and the Perkins brailler. I wrote several paragraphs on the subject, and inadvertantly deleted them. So, I'm a bit grumpy. But, If you're interested, I can exspaciate on it at some point.

  5. Sounds interesting, Catreona. My experience of braille consists mostly of observing it on ATM machines and elevators, and trying to extrapolate its principles based on that. (And yes, I'm sure you can imagine me thinking geeky and linguistic stuff instead of just spacing out as the elevator takes me to the appropriate floor!)

  6. Juliette, I rather doubt that even you can extrapolate the structure behind the braille code from elevators or even ATM machines. And, no, I probably don't know another soul who would so much as think of trying. I'll write something up for you. I think you'll find the literary braille code interesting, since it combines alphabetic, sylibary, whole word and word components.

    BTW as to your new design: I notice that you still have the colored dots from the previous design on your "Posted by" line. You might want to replace that with a miniature version of your crest.