Vicky (hi Vicky! ) asked me to convince her that the Dvorak keyboard layout is better than QWERTY, and expressed a belief that the QWERTY layout is ‘based on the nearness of the frequently used letters.’
It’s true that in 1868 the designer of the QWERTY layout, a Mr. Christopher Latham Sholes, did make reference to ‘digraphs’ – pairs of letters that occur commonly in the English language. But his purpose was not to make these digraphs easier to hit. On the contrary: his aim was to find a way to handle a particular flaw in the mechanism of his new invention (the “type-writer”), which kept jamming up. He used the digraph data to physically separate the keys in the ‘type basket’ so that these common pairs, when hit, didn’t cause the ‘type bars’ to collide. (Some say that his intent was to deliberately slow typists down; but – there were no typists then!)
Some 65 years later when designing his ‘Simplified’ keyboard layout, Dr. August Dvorak paid a great deal of attention not only to the construction of the English language, but also to human physiology and behaviour. He (an American Educational Psychologist and Professor of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle) spent ten years doing detailed studies of everything to do with typewriting, and published a book entitled “Typewriting Behavior,” now out of print. He knew his stuff.
Nowadays, we use electronic keyboards, not typewriters. They’re entirely different beasts. And although Microsoft sells a keyboard featuring the QWERTY layout under the name ‘Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard,’ that’s pure marketing. There’s nothing ergonomic at all about the QWERTY layout. Simple tests prove that the QWERTY layout is no better than any random layout as a text input tool for the English language.
I could go on and on… but it’s all been said before, many times. The best explanation I have encountered so far is the highly entertaining and informative Dvorak Zine.
Please feel free to flick back through this blog if you want to see the first hand impressions of one satisfied convert who began to use the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout just last September (me).
Consider ‘Etaoin Shrdlu:’ with minor variations, this mnemonic indicates the relative frequencies of the letters of the alphabet in the English language. All but two of these most common letters are on the Dvorak’s home row: only half as many appear in “ASDFGHJKL,” a line of characters that bears silent witness to the original alphabetical ordering of Mr. Sholes’s now obsolete invention, the typewriter.
My thanks to SarahR on the Colemak forum for the inspiration for the title I’ve used here. Yes, Dvorak isn’t the only ergonomically-designed keyboard layout, several have been developed in the last century or so – not surprisingly, since there are many trillions of possible permutations of the keys on a standard electronic keyboard. The Dvorak layout is simply the oldest and most well-known of these; the one that has the largest and fastest-growing number of users; the one that’s laid out in an ANSI standard; the one that’s built into all major computer operating systems. Including yours.