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France Thinks Its Keyboards Are Ruining the French Language

Most keyboards in France make handling the language's many special characters a chore.
Image: Bev Sykes/Flickr

The French government has been dictating what counts as the proper French language for almost 400 years now (save for a nasty little break during the French Revolution), but while it may have picked fights with words like "software" and "hashtag," it's apparently never bothered to standardize the French keyboard. As a result, it believes the standards of the language are slipping. Quelle horreur!

But that's all about to change. In a statement released this week, France's culture and communications ministry announced that it's determined to knock some Gallic sense into the country's favored AZERTY keyboard, which they claim makes it "almost impossible to write French correctly."

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At a casual glance, there doesn't seem to be much of a problem—indeed, France has been using the AZERTY setup more or less constantly since the late 19th century. Most other countries that use a Latin alphabet use the QWERTY format, which gets its name from the top six letters on the keyboard. The existing exceptions are usually minor, as in the case of the German keyboard that switches the Z and Y keys, and even on an AZERTY keyboard, the big differences mainly amount to the placement of the keys on the left side of the board.

As the report accompanying the announcement makes clear, it's the little things that have the French government so eager to do away with the différence. It's the way most AZERTY keyboards have dedicated keys for commonly accented letters like é and è but nothing for the cedilla in ça or the ligatures that give us words like trompe l'œil. It's the way many of the current keyboards make it a hassle to capitalize accented letters in names and words like Étienne and Étude, thus leading many speakers to mistakenly believe accents aren't necessary.

The report shows otherwise, noting, among other examples, that a simple accent would mean all the difference between describing whether someone is an intern (interne) or a confined in a mental hospital (interné). If these complications weren't bad enough, the report also points out that widely used special characters such as the € for Euros and the @ for (c'mon, you should know this by now) don't even make an appearance on some keyboards. When they do exist, they're rarely in the same spots.

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And the problem goes even deeper than that. French uses double chevrons (« ») in much the same way we use quotation marks (or inverted commas, for the Brit crowd) in English, yet the report laments that "it's impossible to find traces of these double chevrons on most keyboards sold in France." Obviously, plenty of French writers have managed to work around these issues by knowing multi-key shortcuts and codes, but the French government rightly believes many of these workarounds are far more cumbersome than they should be.

So what's to be done? The culture and communications ministry has tasked AFNOR, France's standardizing organization, with coming up with a solution. The effort goes far beyond the French language alone, though, as the group also plans to work in punctuation marks for French regional languages like Occitan, Catalan, Breton as well as other European languages and Polynesian. After AFNOR gets some input from both manufacturers and the public following the release of a draft this summer, the new standard should go live sometime next year.

It's worth noting that the ministry doesn't plan on forcing manufacturers to use whatever AFNOR comes up with, but it might as well since the same report also suggests that any keyboards the government buys for its own purposes may need to follow the new standard.

The alternative BÉPO keyboard, which caters more to French's peculiarities than the AZERTY. Image: Isabelle Hurbain-Palatin/Flickr

There's a small chance AFNOR could produce something truly off the wall; something that's about as far from QWERTY as Paris is from Little Rock. The ministry's report includes a small diagram of the BÉPO keyboard, for instance, which supports dedicated keys for French special characters and (unlike the AZERTY board) places the most commonly used letters in French within easy reach.

But don't count on it. In AFNOR's press release, project manager Philippe Magnabosco claims the group can accomplish its task without "disrupting" the AZERTY interface that so many people are already used to.

A revolt, therefore, but not a revolution.