Idiocy of Keyboard Layouts

Perm url with updates:

Idiocy of Keyboard Layouts: QWERTZ, AZERTY, Alt Graph

Xah Lee, 2009-09-16, 2010-11-03

Recently, am looking at different keyboard layouts used in different countries, in discussion about ErgoEmacs project. See Keyboard layout.

One thing i noticed, is that many of them are idiotically designed.

Idiocy of Swapping Keys

Germany kbd-s

A variation of QWERTZ layout used in Germany.

For example, the QWERTZ one used in Germany and some other euro countries. It differs from QWERTY by swapping Y and Z. Here's the frequency of these keys in German according to Letter frequency:

Z (1.13%) 20th most frequent.
Y (0.04%) 25th most frequent.

We see that both are not frequently used, and Y is almost never used.

On QWERTY, Z is a pinky curl to the lower row, while Y requires a 2-key extend of the 2nd (pointing) finger to the upper row. It is questionable that Y is easier to type than Z.

Belgian kbd-s

A Belgian AZERTY layout.

Similar is the AZERTY layout, used in France and Belgium. It differs from QWERTY, mostly by swapping A and Q, Z and W, and M with “,”, again supposedly for the purpose of efficiency for the French language. Each of the swapping are quite questionable.

According to Letter frequency, in French, A is used 7.636%, and Q is 1.362%, so A is used 5.6 more times than Q. A is on the home row, but Q is not. What's the reason for swapping A and Q??

Also consider the swapping of Z (0.136%) and W (0.114%). Their frequency of use is almost the same, and the Z position on QWERTY is not necessarily more difficult to type than W's position. Z is a pinky curl to the lower row, while W is a slightly larger extention with 4th finger (the ring finger) to the upper row.

The swapping of M with , is equally silly. Consider typing ease of their positions on QWERTY, they are about equal. Both are a curl-in to the lower row. M with 2nd finger (pointing finger), while , with middle finger. I would say M is actaully the easier to type, because the middle finger is longer and harder to curl in. In French, M is a frequently used letter (2.968%). I don't have the number for the comma, but it's clear M happens at least twice more frequently than comma. So, swapping actually made them less efficient.

If you really want to improve efficiency of QWERTY by swapping some key pairs, there are a lot candidate pairs that'd do much better.

Consider this in another way. Suppose we are going to create a new layout by make 3 pairs of swapping from QWERTY to improve the efficiency for typing French. Then, the “AQ”, “ZW”, “M,” are probably far the worst choices. (note: all this should done by methods that is scientifically sound, for example, quantified data of finger movement, distances, letter frequency, and many other aspects, or, as statistical data gathered from social study of some population's experiences.)

In studying these, i wanted to know WHO actually designed these layout, or how were these layout developed. That is, their history. But that's more esoteric info and needs more time to research than i can devote now.

Stupidity of Alt Graph

Another major stupidity is related to the Alt Graph key. In many of these layouts, the right Alt is the AltGr key, for typing many letters not in English. However, if you look in detail, you'll notice that vast majority of key spaces in most of these layouts are left empty with the Alt Gr, a egregious waste of spots. And if you look at their choice of placement for the chars, clearly they have paid absolutely no consideration to touch typing efficiency.

Canadian Multilingual Standard kbd-s

Canadian Multilingual

Canadian French kbd-s

Canadian French

France kbd-s

French layout, a AZERTY variation.

When you read Wikipedia articles on them, you also read about some criticism similar to the above, and get the sense that these layouts didn't really came from conscious design. For example, the French in Canada do NOT use the AZERTY used in France, even though their lang is the same. (the variations between France French and Canadian French, with respect to typing (i.e. Grapheme) is probably practically non-existent.)

If one must create a incompatible layout among nations, simply adopting Dvorak will be much better, because of the simple fact that all vows are on the home row, and all euro langs heavily use the vow letters. Even better is to adopt a Dvorak variant layout modified for their particular language. (These efficient layout exist, see: Dvorak, Maltron, Colemak, NEO, B├ępo, Turkish-F, Keyboard Layouts Fight!)

Your Layout vs My Layout

Also, you'll note that there are a lot unnecessary variations of layout. For example, there's Canadian Multilingual Standard, Canadian French, French. There's “Spanish (Spain)” and “Spanish (Latin America)”. There is United Kingdom, United Kingdom Extended, US-International. If you just use Dvorak, with a Alt Graph that fill key spots more with chars, and with ergonomics considerations, it is trivial to arrive at a layout design that can replace much of these variations and yet be more touch-typing efficient than each of the layout.

Latin American kbd-s

Spanish (Latin American)

Spanish kbd-s

Spanish (Spain)

United Kingdom kbd-s

United Kingdom

US-International kbd-s

US International. Among existing layouts, this design is more close to technical excellency, as it more properly uses Alt Gr spaces. If we re-arrange it to Dvorak, it would close to a good universal layout for majority of Latin-alphabet based languages.

Overall, i think the way things are has little to do with technical reasons, but rather: (1) historical happenstances. Much like the story of QWERTY and Dvorak. (2) Human animal's egotistic pride. Much the same pervasive and perpetual political fight about language, among different countries of different languages, among different countries of the same language, among the same country with different languages, or among regions using the same language but small variations. It's not about technicality of design, but this is MY, that is YOURS.

Popular posts from this blog

11 Years of Writing About Emacs

does md5 creates more randomness?

Google Code shutting down, future of ErgoEmacs