Multilingual keyboard

An outfit called Kợnyin – yes that’s a diacritical under the ‘o’ , not a smudge – has just launched a range of keyboards for Latin-alphabet African languages, marketed by LANCOR, a Nigerian IT company. The keyboard features a QWERTY layout modified to include all diacritical marks for languages used officially in various countries in the continent. Starting with Nigeria, which uses written English, Ẹdo, Ẹ̣fik, Hausa, Fulani, Ìgbo, Kanuri and Yorùba in various contexts. This means that the new keyboard hosts a total of 26 “alphabets”. Kợnyin also markets a US multilingual keyboard with English, Español, and Ōlelo Hawai’I alphabets and diacritical marks. How “official” are the latter two tongues?

Until now, writers in countries such as Nigeria and Niger and Togo and Tanzania have presumably made use of multiple physical keyboards, or virtual onscreen keyboards you click on – like the character insert mode in Word. Or more likely, nothing at all. Multilingual keyboarding has always been a headache for manufacturers: do you offer a deck with all possible character needs for all writers in a language set, knowing most will need few? Or do you localize keyboards to specific typewriting traditions, plus a few international keys such as currencies and the like, losing out on generalities and increasing production overheads for small runs? In other words, do you globalize or localize the keyboard concept? And then do you instantiate this choice in the hardware or the software?

I remember very early efforts to sell Mac Arabization kits with stick-on Arabic characters to be pasted onto European physical keyboards. A mess. Then Xerox pioneered the truly virtual keyboard for multilingual contexts back in the late 1980s, but this meant that keyboarding turned into cursor-ing, with software making the hardware awkward. Presumably this is how virtual keyboards on mobile phones and similar devices work today when you want to input, say, a Turkish “ș” on a little standard alphanumerical keypad.

The thing about keyboards as a text input device is that you can learn and get used to any layout if you work at it, however non-optimal it might be. All I could find once in a North African city 25 years ago to write English text was an old Polish keyboard typewriter, with an ł, ź and ę in the wrong places for UK fingers. But after about a week’s acclimatization, I could churn out English by the yard. I also remember watching a Cuban cop fill out a form at top speed in Spanish using a clunky German layout typewriter from Leipzig. And remember that when the Perseus project of digitizing the whole of the Greek literary canon looked around for input typists, they ended up training a squadron of Filipino women to use an ancient Greek keyboard to do the job. Knowing the meaning of the Greek apparently got in the way of input speed when they tested classics graduates for the job.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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