Idiocy of Keyboard Layouts: QWERTZ, AZERTY

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Recently, am looking at different keyboard layouts used in different countries, as research for the ErgoEmacs project. [see ErgoEmacs Keybinding: a Ergonomics Based Keyboard Shortcut System]

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

Idiocy of Swapping Keys


german layout S4Qk
A variation of QWERTZ layout used in Germany. The red are dead keys. []

QWERTZ layout and variant is used in Germany and central Europe (Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.)

It differs from QWERTY by swapping Y and Z.

Here is the frequency of these keys in German:

german letter frequency 34432
German letter frequency

[see Character Frequency Plot]

[see German Keyboard Layouts]

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

It would make sense if Z is placed on a key more easy to press than Y.

On QWERTY, Z is a pinky curl to the lower row, while Y requires a 2-key extend of the pointing finger to the upper row. I don't think one is easier than the other. It is questionable that a swap makes it better.


Belgian kbd
A Belgian AZERTY layout.

Similar is the AZERTY layout, used in France and Belgium. It differs from QWERTY, mostly by swapping

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 extension with 4th finger (the ring finger) to the upper row.


Nic Falcon wrote to say that:

Just to notice : all words in French with a Z have a A or a E next to the Z. Moreover, you can't say β€œAlso consider the swapping of Z (0.136%) and W (0.114%). Their frequency of use is almost the same”. It's not true at all. Z is at the end of almost half of the french verbs when they are used with the β€œyou” subject.

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 actually 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 {A ↔ Q, Z ↔ W, M ↔ ,} are probably 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 layouts, their history. It turns out, the info is hard to find.

[see French Keyboard Layouts]

[see French Letter Frequency]

idiocy of Alt Graph

Another major stupidity is related to entering special characters.

In many of these layouts, the right Alt is the AltGraph key, for typing many letters not in English. [see Alt Graph Key, Compose Key, Dead Key] If you look in detail, you'll notice that vast majority of key spaces in most of these layouts are left empty with the AltGraph, a egregious waste of spots.

French Keyboard Layouts
German Keyboard Layouts
Latin American Spanish layout ZRnH
Spanish Keyboard Layouts

And if you look at their choice of placement for the chars, clearly they have paid absolutely no consideration to touch typing efficiency.

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 speaking people in Canada do NOT use the AZERTY used in France, even though their language is the same. (the variations between French in France and Canadian French, with respect to typing is basically 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 European languages heavily use the vow letters. Even better is to adopt a Dvorak variant layout modified for their particular language.

(ergo layouts for different language exist, for example, β€’ French Ergonomic Keyboard Layouts: dvorak-fr, bepo, bvofrak β€’ German Ergonomic Keyboard Layouts: de-ergo, NEO, ADNW )

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 β€œSpanish (Spain)” and β€œSpanish (Latin America)”. There is United Kingdom, United Kingdom Extended, US-International. If you just use Dvorak Layout, 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.

Among existing layouts, the US-International layout, or the Canadian Multilingual Layout, are more close to technical excellency, as it more properly uses AltGraph spaces. If we re-arrange it to Dvorak, it would close to a good universal layout for majority of Latin-alphabet based languages.

Canadian Multilingual Layout
US-International kbd
US-International [ ]

Overall, i think the way things are has little to do with technical reasons, but rather: β‘  historical happenstances. Much like the story of QWERTY and Dvorak. β‘‘ 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.

Keyboard Layouts



Layout Efficiency

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