by Jo Brodie, Queen Mary University of London
If you’ve ever sent a text on a phone or written an essay on a computer you’ve most likely come across the ‘QWERTY’ keyboard layout. It looks like this on a smartphone.
This layout has been around in one form or another since the 1870s and was first used in old mechanical typewriters where pressing a letter on the keyboard caused a hinged metal arm with that same letter embossed at the end to swing into place, thwacking a ribbon coated with ink, to make an impression on the paper. It was quite loud!
The QWERTY keyboard isn’t just used by English speakers but can easily be used by anyone whose language is based on the same A,B,C Latin alphabet (so French, Spanish, German etc). All the letters that an English-speaker needs are right there in front of them on the keyboard and with QWERTY… WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). There’s a one-to-one mapping of key to letter: if you tap the A key you get a letter A appearing on screen, click the M key and an M appears. (To get a lowercase letter you just tap the key but to make it uppercase you need to tap two keys; the up arrow (‘shift’) key plus the letter).
A French or Spanish speaking person could also buy an adapted keyboard that includes letters like É and Ñ, or they can just use a combination of keys to make those letters appear on screen (see Key Combinations below). But what about writers of other languages which don’t use the Latin alphabet? The QWERTY keyboard, by itself, isn’t much use for them so it potentially excludes a huge number of people from using it.
In the English language the letter A never alters its shape depending on which letter goes before or comes after it. (There are 39 lower case letter ‘a’s and 3 upper case ‘A’s in this paragraph and, apart from the difference in case, they all look exactly the same.) That’s not the case for other languages such as Arabic or Hindi where letters can change shape depending on the adjacent letters. With some languages the letters might even change vertical position, instead of being all on the same line as in English.
Early attempts to make writing in other languages easier assumed that non-English alphabets could be adapted to fit into the dominant QWERTY keyboard, with letters that are used less frequently being ignored and other letters being simplified to suit. That isn’t very satisfactory and speakers of other languages were concerned that their own language might become simplified or standardised to fit in with Western technology, a form of ‘digital colonialism’.
But in the 1940s other solutions emerged. The design for one Chinese typewriter avoided QWERTY’s ‘one key equals one letter’ (which couldn’t work for languages like Chinese or Japanese which use thousands of characters – impossible to fit onto one keyboard, see picture at the end!).
Rather than using the keys to print one letter, the user typed a key to begin the process of finding a character. A range of options would be displayed and the user would select another key from among them, with the options narrowing until they arrived at the character they wanted. Luckily this early ‘retrieval system’ of typing actually only took a few keystrokes to bring up the right character, otherwise it would have taken ages.
This is a way of using a keyboard to type words rather than letters, saving time by only displaying possible options. It’s also an early example of ‘autocomplete’ now used on many devices to speed things up by displaying the most likely word for the user to tap, which saves them typing it.
For example in English the letter Q is generally* always followed by the letter U to produce words like QUAIL, QUICK or QUOTE. There are only a handful of letters that can follow QU – the letter Z wouldn’t be any use but most of the vowels would be. You might be shown A, E, I or O and if you selected A then you’ve further restricted what the word could be (QUACK, QUARTZ, QUARTET etc).
In fact one modern typing system, designed for typists with physical disabilities, also uses this concept of ‘retrieval’, relying on a combination of letter frequency (how often a letter is used in the English language) and probabilistic predictions (about how likely a particular letter is to come next in an English word). Dasher is a computer program that lets someone write text without using a keyboard, instead a mouse, joystick, touchscreen or a gaze-tracker (a device that tracks the person’s eye position) can be used.
Letters are presented on-screen in alphabetic order from top to bottom on the right hand side (lowercase first, then upper case) and punctuation marks. The user ‘drives’ through the word by first pushing the cursor towards the first letter, then the next possible set of letters appear to choose from, and so on until each word is completed. You can see it in action in this video below.
The use of software to expand the usefulness of QWERTY keyboards is now commonplace with programs pre-installed onto devices which run in the background. These IMEs or Input Method Editors can convert a set of keystrokes into a character that’s not available on the keyboard itself. For example, while I can type SHIFT+8 to display the asterisk (*) symbol that sits on the 8 key there’s no degree symbol (as in 30°C) on my keyboard. On a Windows computer I can create it using the numeric keypad on the right of some keyboards, holding down the ALT key while typing the sequence 0176. While I’m typing the numbers nothing appears but once I complete the sequence and release the ALT key the ° appears on the screen.
When Japanese speakers type they use the main ‘ABC’ letters on the keyboard, but the principle is the same – a combination of keys produces a sequence of letters that the IME converts to the correct character. Or perhaps they could use Google Japan’s April Fool solution from 2010, below!
*QWERTY is a ‘word’ which starts with a Q that’s not followed by a U of course…
- Typing is dead, Thomas S Mullaney, Chapter 16 in the book “Your Computer Is On Fire” (2021)
- How the QWERTY keyboard shapes the way we communicate (16 June 2020) The British Academy, Dr Vaibhav Singh
- Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (3 May 2013) Smithsonian Magazine, by Jimmy Stamp – on why the keyboard uses a QWERTY layout in the first place
The ‘retrieval system’ of typing mentioned above, which lets the user get to the word or characters more quickly, is similar to the general problem solving strategy called ‘Divide and Conquer’. You can read more about that and other search algorithms in our free booklet ‘Searching to Speak‘ (PDF) which explores how the design of an algorithm could allow someone with locked-in syndrome to communicate. Locked-in syndrome is a condition resulting from a stroke where a person is totally paralysed. They can see, hear and think but cannot speak. How could a person with Locked-in syndrome write a book? How might they do it if they knew some computational thinking?
This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.