Choosing an English Keyboard Configuration

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 10, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

To be fluent in English is to be privileged on the Internet. Although sites in other languages are more common than they were a couple of decades ago, English remains the dominant language on the Internet. Downloads and projects default to English, and non-English speakers are usually expected to defer to you, not the other way around. For these reasons, many English speakers, especially in North America, use a default English (US) keyboard layout (sometimes called the ANSI layout because of its basic selection of characters), and never see the need for anything else.

However, in this increasingly international world, dropping an accent or an umlaut because the default layout lacks them makes a document look unpolished. Used for the name of an acquaintance or friend, this practice can be embarrassing, as if you lack the basic politeness to spell their name properly.

To look less ignorant and less privileged, you can use a character map, selecting the characters you need from a utility window, or using the keystrokes to enter a character's code. However, the only trouble is, using a character map can be slow and disruptive. A better choice is to choose an alternate layout, which compromises between the needs of English and other Western European languages to make non-English characters selectable directly from the keyboard.

These days, most distributions and some desktop environments make switching between keyboard layouts easier than ever. For example, in Debian and its derivatives, the command dpkg-reconfigure keyboard-configuration not only changes the layout, but lets you set the installation to reboot with Ctrl+Alt+Backspace. Similarly, in KDE, Start Menu > Favorites > System Settings > Hardware > Input Devices > Keyboard > Layouts sets the keyboard layout for the entire system, or just the current account. Other distributions and desktops include their own tools for changing layouts.

In addition to the various characters, most keyboard layouts define what is known as the AltGr key. This key acts like a Shift key, adding two more characters when a key is pressed. Pressing the key normally for a lower case character is known as the first level character, while pressing it with the Shift key for an upper case character is a second level character. Pressing the AltGr key while pressing the key produces a third level character, while pressing AltGr+Shift+Key produces the fourth level character.

For example, pressing the E key in the English (international with dead keys) layout results in e for the first level character, E for the second, é for the third, and É for the fourth.

Most layouts -- although diagrams often omit it -- also include a Compose key. With the Compose key, you can combine characters to create a new one. For example, by holding the Compose key while you select ` followed by a produces à.

Both the AltGr and Compose keys are programmable with many layout utilities. My own preference is to use the Windows keys (or Logo keys, as Debian calls them), just to make them good for something.

Some keys are also deadkeys. These are keys that you press, then release to press another key.But which alternative English keyboard should you use? That depends on your needs. Most keyboard variants include layouts for QWERTY, Dvorak, Coleman, and Workman key arrangements. Variants for Ghana, Nigeria, and other African countries that make wide use of English are also available. However, for simplicity's sake, I will confine my comments to English (US) QWERTY layouts, whose variants -- or, at least, something close to them --are often available for other English layouts.

Keyboard Variants
The main QWERTY variants for English (US) are:

  • English (US): The default layout for most distributions. When using it, you must use a character map to insert any letter that includs any diacritical whatsoever. This layout is useful only if you never need to type words in a non-English language.
  • English (US, with Euro on 5): The only improvement with this layout is the addition of the  to the 5 key. which makes it of limited use.
  • English (US, alternative, international): This layout adds the to the 5 key, and and ¢ as the third and fourth level characters on the e key. A few accents can be used with the Compose key to produce a few accented characters. These limited changes mean that the layout cannot cope with many Western European characters, but it might be enough for light, mostly financial use.
  • English (US, international AltGr Unicode combining): Useful for acute and grave accents on vowels, but short on other diacriticals. Whether this layout is a possible choice would depend on what other languages you needed to type.
  • English (US, international AltGr Unicode combining): Most Western European languages can be typed with this layout. It includes most diacriticals, as well as the characters þ and ð for Old English, the symbols for cents, pounds, yens and Euros, for copyright and restricted trademarks and for dipthongs such as æ or œ. Its main drawback is that the accents are the third level characters on 9 and 0, which is an awkward stretch of the fingers. Otherwise, typing in English with it is the same as when using the ordinary English (US) layout.
  • English (US, international with dead keys): With the same advantages as English (US, international AltGr Unicode combining), this layout avoids awkward stretching when typing single and double straight quotes, by keeping them on the same key as in English (US). However, it does move them to the third and fourth level, which can be easily forgotten by someone conditioned by years of using English (US). Really, the choice between these last two layouts is the choice of which inconvenience to endure.

Turnabout
Changing keyboard layouts can reduce your typing speed, and sometimes requires awkward key combinations to get results. All in all, any change can take some adjustment.
However, non-English speakers have put up with similar annoyances for years. It's well-past time to share the drawbacks around a little.

And for languages that don't use the Roman alphabet? That's another level of complication again. Equipping yourself for Western European languages is only a start.

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