An old typewriter showing the French AZERTY keyboard layout Flickr/Alexandre Duret-Lutz

They make it “practically impossible to write correct French,” says a new report.

The French language may still be considered one of the most elegant and prestigious in the world, but the tools the French use to write it down just aren’t up to the job.

That’s the verdict of a report published last Friday, which claims that with current keyboards “it’s practically impossible to write correct French,” and that they need to be replaced with something slicker and better standardized. You might expect this sort of disgruntled commentary to come from some fringe technophile, so the source of the report is surprising. This broadside against the shortcomings of France’s computer hardware comes from the heart of France’s establishment – the country’s own Ministry of Culture and Communications.

The French typing problems outlined in the report are indeed a little unexpected given France’s usual exactitude on all matters of language. They stem from the country’s specific keyboard layout. Called the AZERTY keyboard, it was adapted from the QWERTY layout in the late 19th century, shifting some letters around to allow more space between commonly used French letters. It’s currently used only in France and French-speaking Belgium (though it’s closely linked to Lithuania’s similar ĄŽERTY layout), as most other European countries that use the Latin alphabet cleave either to QWERTY or the Central European QWERTZ layout.  

France’s keyboard was created specifically for the French language, but it doesn’t do the job perfectly. When it comes to computer adaptations, it hasn’t been standardized across all models, meaning you can’t always rely on the same symbols being in the same place – classic examples of this are those everyday staples, the @ and € symbols. When it comes to writing accented letters – essential bearers of meaning in French – different systems use different routes, while many keyboards don’t even have the ability to create some common symbol or letter combinations that Francophones write on a daily basis.

Among these are capital letters with accents. Getting an É without an autocorrect function can take some cunning, while no keyboard currently allows you to capitalize the character ç. Given that it’s the first letter in the word in “ça” (“that”) the omission can really cramp people’s writing choices. Other absences are the conjoined letters œ and æ. The former combination is very common as in the words œuf and œuvre (“egg” and “work”). The latter is less so, but that surely doesn’t stop the thousands of French women called Lætitia finding its absence frustrating on a daily basis. These combinations can of course be replaced by separate letters, but to a French eye that doesn’t look quite right.

The solution suggested by the French is ambitious. The report recommends a new pan-European super keyboard that irons out the problems and is adapted not just to French but to other languages. As the continent integrates, the report argues, Europeans are going to need a keyboard that doesn’t just keep the @ symbol in the same place but also has a direct key for characters such as Spanish ñ, German ß, Polish ą and Czech ř and ů, among others. To make the keyboard yet more forward looking it could include newfangled symbols such as ‰ (per-mille) and≤ and ≥ for “less than or equal” and “greater than or equal.”

That all sounds great, if perhaps a little cluttered should every option get its own separate key. Now all they need to do is persuade people outside France that they actually need it.

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