​France's epic keyboard fail: End of the line for AZERTY?

Having baffled typists for decades, the flawed AZERTY keyboard layout is facing a revamp after the French government finally steps in.
Written by Frances Marcellin, Contributor on

The French are set to improve upon the AZERTY keyboard.

Image: iStock

After years of struggling with a variety of non-standard keyboards, French computer users could soon be typing on a new improved version that guarantees all necessary keys are available and always found in the same place.

A new French keyboard design should emerge from a collaboration announced this month between the country's Ministry of Culture and Communication and the Association Française de Normalisation, or AFNOR, the French national organisation for standardisation.

"It's almost impossible to write in correct French with a commercial keyboard in France," the culture ministry said in a statement.

There are so many keyboards on the French market, it explained, that users' experience varies depending on which one is employed, because keys are either in different places or are not available at all.

Currently, writers in other European countries, such as Germany and Spain, can type better French just because their keyboards allow them to, the ministry added.

The AZERTY keyboard, the French version of the English QWERTY, was first introduced at the end of the 19th century.

Other formats have been introduced over the years, such as Albert Navarre's ZHJAY design. But AZERTY has held sway because typists have become used to its layout, despite its numerous peculiarities.

While most people have used the AZERTY keyboard, it never became an official standard under AFNOR. Now that situation is set to change.

The AZERTY keyboard imposes many restrictions on would-be writers of correct French. Difficulties include the lack of double chevrons « and », known as 'guillemets' in French. Nor, for example, can users type the ligatures 'æ' and 'œ', which are used in many everyday words such as cœur and sœur.

One of the culture ministry's biggest concerns about the existing keyboard is the challenge it presents to writing capital letters with accents. For example, users cannot type a capital C cedilla, or Ç, with the AZERTY keyboard.

This absence of capital letters with accents has caused problems because people now believe it is no longer necessary to put accents on capitals, despite constant recommendations to the contrary from the Académie française, which deals with matters relating to the French language, and the Imprimerie nationale official state printer.

The culture ministry also wants it to be possible to type France's various regional languages, such as Catalan, Occitan, and Breton, using the new keyboard.

"The project can be well managed without changing the AZERTY keyboard drastically, which most people are used to," AFNOR project manager Philippe Magnabosco said.

"The goal is to offer new options that respect the French way of writing and respond to the needs of the market." A draft standard will be presented at public enquiry in summer 2016 for feedback from stakeholders.

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