While computer users have long been used to the constant evolution of processors, displays, hard drives and graphics cards, there is one component that has remained pretty much unchanged since the dawn of IT: the keyboard.
This is particularly true of AZERTY, the peculiar French version of the standard QWERTY layout, which has been bastardizing the language of love for more than a century, thanks to its peculiarities.
On Wednesday, several French dailies announced that ministers had filed a motion to scrap the AZERTY keyboard — a claim the government was quick to deny.
Speaking Wednesday on iTélé , French Minister of Culture and Communication Fleur Pellerin said the French keyboard was not facing extinction just yet, but that the government was working "to improve some of its functions."
"Work is being undertaken […] in a number of Francophone countries, to fix certain flaws on the AZERTY keyboard," the minister said.
The makeover will ensure the keyboard is better adapted to a language that relies heavily on accents, cedillas, and other special characters that often require feats of gymnastic dexterity on the part of the typist.
The modifications will follow recommendations by the General Delegation for the French Language and the Languages of France — a unit of the Ministry of Culture and Communication that deals with all things Francophone. According to the ministry, it is "practically impossible to write French correctly using a keyboard that has been purchased in France today."
While some accented letters have dedicated keys on the AZERTY keyboard, others are harder to type out. Most problematic are accented capitals, such as 'É' or 'Ô', and ligatures like 'æ' and 'œ'. Composing a capital 'Ç' also requires a degree of digital contortion.
Overseeing the makeover is French National Organization for Standardization AFNOR, a consultancy group that coordinated the establishment of national standards in France.
"The French language has rules, but we are not equipped with the tools to follow them," explained AFNOR project manager Philippe Magnabosco. "It can be very simple things, like people whose family name ends in 'é' often end up with an [unaccented] 'E' when the name is capitalized."
Despite dramatic headlines by French daily Le Figaro and others that, "The AZERTY keyboard could soon be replaced," the modifications will likely just result in a more user-friendly version of the current layout.
In Belgium — the only other country in the world that uses AZERTY — the grave (`) and acute (') accents have their own keys, which means they can be added to any vowel. Residents of Quebec — the mainly French-speaking province of Canada — use a QWERTY keyboard that has been adapted to the French language, making it easy, for example, to capitalize the letter 'ç.'
"We're not about to revolutionize the AZERTY keyboard," said Magnabosco, adding that the changes would be discreet. For example, a key may include information on how to compose a capital 'é' — "which many people don't know how to do," said the consultant.
As well as reintroducing vanishing accented capitals, the government hopes the new keyboard will make it easier to write in regional languages like Occitan, Catalan, Polynesian and Breton. "[…] These languages have particularities that should be taken into account," the government said.
In 2003, a group promoting the Breton language marketed a Breton keyboard — C'HWERTY — to better suit the needs of this regional language, which is still spoken in some parts of northwestern France. The keyboard displays the Breton letter 'C'H,' which is similar phonetically to the German 'ch.'
QWERTY, AZERTY, ZHJAY, Dvorak and BÉPO
QWERTY was patented in 1873 Christopher Latham Sholes, an American inventor who commercialized the world's first typewriters.
The keys on the very first typewriters were positioned in alphabetical order, and typing too quickly would sometimes cause the typebars to jam. To remedy the problem, Sholes devised a new layout — QWERTY — which sought to spread the most commonly used letters far apart on the keyboard.
AZERTY, which became popular around the end of the 19th century, was modeled on the QWERTY keyboard. According to Magnabosco, it became the de facto keyboard in France "out of habit," despite having never been officially recognized as the standard French keyboard.
Habit also appears to be the primary motive behind keeping these layouts when the world transitioned to computers.
Previous attempts at modifying these layouts have proved unsuccessful. In 1907, a commission of 20 experts led by Albert Navarre tried to introduce a new layout known as ZHJAY, but failed to impose his product as most secretaries were by then used to AZERTY.
In the 30s, August Dvorak and William Dealey tried to revolutionize the keyboard by introducing the simplified Dvorak layout — a layout based on letter frequency and designed to reduce finger motion.
The Dvorak layout was later optimized for the French language, which gave birth to BÉPO — a layout that still has fans to this day. BÉPO encourages the equal use of both hands for typing, allowing for faster and more fluid typing.
Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, Magnabosco said that the creators of BÉPO had been called in to help on the improved keyboard project. The new AZERTY keyboard, he said, would end up looking a lot like the old one.
"The aim is simply to give people possibilities they don't have now," he said. "We want something that is functional, so in one way, it'll be an AZERTY keyboard with a few added extras."
The first proposals should be made public this summer.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Photo via Flickr