01 June 2007

Zhqt is this qbout? Zell, keyboqrds, of course

I don't plan to use the French keyboard that will come with my new computer, which is scheduled for delivery on Monday. I still have a couple of American-layout keyboards lying around, and I'll use one of those.

What are the main differences between the two layouts? One has to to with accents, which French is full of and English doesn't use. There are keys and key combinations that make it easier to enter accented characters: é, à, ô, ç, ï, etc. There are so many more characters on the French keyboard that there is an extra ALT key to make it possible to type them.

That's fine. But there are two or three small differences in key placement that make it very hard to adapt to the French keyboard if you are a touch typist (remember that expression?). The first is that the A key is in the place of the Q, and vice versa. So you really have to work to train yourself not to type qnd for and and hqve for have, and so on. You can see how that would really slow you down.

The Z and the W keys are also swapped. Zhqt did you sqy? Zhich keys? That's qmqwing. In fact, the keyboards are designated by the string of letters on their upper left side. The American one is called the QWERTY keyboard. The French one is called the AZERTY keyboard.

The AZERTY keyboard (click on the graphic to enlarge it)

Another difference to get used to: the M key is where the semicolon is on an American keyboard. Worse than that, you have to shift to type a period or a question mark on the French keyboard. You also have to shift to type numbers.

All that makes it nearly impossible for somebody who knows the American English keyboard to type on a French keyboard. Think about that when you plan a trip to France and think you'll just pop into an Internet café to check your mail and send a few quick messages to friends and family. It's very frustrating.

I learned the French keyboard at one time in my life. I lived in Paris from 1979 to 1982 and worked as a teacher and translator. I had to have use of a typewriter (this was before computers were widely used). What I ended up with was a tiny blue manual typewriter with a French keyboard. To some of you, the term "manual typewriter" might not mean much.

Look Ma, no power cord!

I got to be pretty proficient with that little machine. Then I moved back to the U.S. in 1982 and I had to learn the U.S. keyboard all over again. For a few weeks I again typed qnd and hqve, not to mention zho, zhich, and zhqt, most of the time. At least I was working on a computer by then, so I didn't have to keep quarts (auqrts?) of White-Out on hand.


  1. Fortunately the Mac store here could order my latest with an US Extended keyboard. I was dreading being stuck this time with a French keyboard. Much too old of a dog to learn that sort of new trick. Have enough on my plate with just the French language!

    Of course my Franglais Mac gets a little mixed up sometimes with the operating system running on French and other parts in English.

    I'm impressed that you switched back and forth. Maybe I have retarded fingers. More likely, lazy fingers.

  2. That feat of learning new keyboard layouts was one I accomplished half a lifetime ago, literally. When Walt got his computer from Dell France three years ago, he was able to get a QWERTY keyboard and windows in English. I didn't have those options this time.

  3. Very creative entry, Ken! You can make any topic fascinating... and funny. I had a lot of chuckles at the AZERTY/QWERTY translations. Thanks for explaining the differences and challenges so well.

  4. When I was at the U of I, I was supposed to type lots of stuff for the professor I was working with, so I learnt how to type with a US keyboard (on a typewriter in those days). Whenever I go back to the States, I go back to my old ways with no pb.
    Macs allow you to change the language setting so that even if you type on a French keyboard, your fingers will find the letters as they are on an American keyboard.

    One weird thing is US keyboards are not quite the same as UK keyboards. Whenever I am at an Internet café in England, I fight with the keyboard like crazy.

  5. Claude, your brain-to-fingers coordination must be more highly developed than mine. On the PC too you can select the keyboard layout you want the computer to recognize, so if you choose the U.S. layout and you type a A on a French keyboard, you see a Q on the screen. The markings on the keys themselves don't mean much.

    And about the U.S./U.K. keyboard differences, there's also for example a French-Canadian keyboard that's different from the French one.


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