No Love for France's Keyboard

I was 20 years old, and I had spent my entire first week in Aix-en-Provence memorizing the town’s labyrinthine network of cobbled streets and crooked back-alleys, acclimating to the constant deluge of unfamiliar sounds, and wrapping my head around the fact that—holy crap—I was living in the South of France.

When I had finally caught up on the sleep I lost somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, I sought out a computer lab to write a letter to my best friend. I wanted to tell her everything—about the fields and cyprus trees, the natural springs that bubbled up in warm fountains all over the city, the steak tartare that had torn through my three-year vegetarian streak like a rocket launcher—but instead of saying, “This place is AMAZING,” my first message said something more along the lines of, “Zqit, zhqt the hell is up zith this keyboqrd1”

The AZERTY keyboard, used exclusively in France and in regions of Belgium, posed obvious problems for an American with Qwerty-inclined hands. Unless I typed like a T-Rex, my words emerged entirely indecipherable, regardless of whether I was writing emails in English or dissertations in French.

But challenges arising from the AZERTY system extend far beyond reorienting to a different key layout. Performing even the most basic functions, such as making a capital letter with an accent, can be a coded and frustrating feat.

“Today it is nearly impossible to write French correctly using a keyboard that has been marketed in France,” the Ministry of Culture lamented in a Jan 15 press release. “More surprisingly, certain European countries like Germany and Spain respect French writing better than the French are able to—because their keyboards permit it.”

While the AZERTY keyboard designates some keys for common accented lower-case letters, other accented letters demand a combination of keys so complex that many users forego the accent altogether. To the horror of the Académie Française, this has led to a widespread misunderstanding that some accents, especially on upper-case letters, are entirely unnecessary.

The ministry has therefore commissioned AFNOR, the nation’s hallowed standardization association, to develop a new norm for French keyboards that could be used as standard reference for all engineers and manufacturers moving forward.

“Right now, there is a big discrepancy between French grammar and the possibilities offered by the keyboard,” said Philippe Magnabosco, who will manage the project at AFNOR.

The aim is to develop a keyboard that accommodates the French language, and their many regional dialects.

“It seems essential that this keyboard allows for the easy use of not only French, but also different languages present in our land, because these languages have specifics that should be taken into account,” the ministry said.

While the government has yet to indicate whether its new layout will upend AZERTY wholly, AFNOR stated that the new standard will not “disrupt” the current design. Letter keys will likely remain in place, while certain symbols will be removed and replaced with essential characters. More radical changes may only further alienate users.

“We’re not working in an ideal world here—we’re making standards for them to be applied in the real world,” said Magnabosco. “So we’re not going to look at something that would revolutionize the keyboard completely. We want something that’s usable, something that’s economically feasible. We want it to work.”