Why I type funny

Before someone uses my computer to look up a bus schedule or check their email, I try to remember to switch it back to normal. But often I don’t catch them until they’ve begun to type and are staring at the gibberish on the screen in baffled frustration. “Your keyboard is broken,” they sometimes say.

It isn’t broken. I just type funny.

I learned to touch type at 12, and by the time I got to college I was typing constantly. On top of all the papers and emails and instant messages, I had a workstudy gig typing up drafts of a professor’s book and two other jobs that involved data entry. At the end of a week of heavy typing, my fingers and wrists would hurt.

One summer my friend Kelle, who also typed a lot, hacked into a typing tutorial program and we set about learning the Dvorak keyboard layout. I don’t think she stuck with it, but I got obsessed and spent the summer making the transition, typing long pages of hand-scrawled notes at a painfully slow crawl that eventually grew to a respectable speed and finally the fast patter I’d been proud of in years past.

Back in the dawn of typing, there were many different keyboard layouts. The Qwerty layout, which is standard today, was concocted in a fruitless attempt to slow typists down so their sticky old typewriters wouldn’t jam. This meant forcing all sorts of tangled and unnatural finger maneuvers, but competitive typists topped 120 wpm anyway.

Dvorak, on the other hand, was developed to be ergonomic and make typing flow more freely. The ten home keys, where your fingers naturally rest, are the most frequently used letters in English, and key placement is chosen so that punctuation is more easily accessible and the letters in common words are typed by alternating hands. The result: when you type in Dvorak, you don’t need to move your hands as much, and when you do, you don’t need to contort them in the same way.

Learning took three long months — as I gained fluency in Dvorak, I lost it in Qwerty, and there was a month where I was frustratingly slow in both — but my hands haven’t hurt from typing since. (Now it’s my back, but that’s a different story.) And my muscle memory for Qwerty hasn’t left me. I toggled back and forth easily for a few years when I had office jobs, though now it takes some time to get back up to speed when I do need to use it.

I’m not sure why or how Qwerty won out in the end, but I assume it was a similar phenomenon to the way VHS won out over the superior format of Beta, or how pink went from being a boy’s color to a girl’s color — some combination of marketing wizardry, luck, and chutzpah. Meanwhile, everyone who’s heard of Dvorak knows it’s better, but that doesn’t stop it from being relegated to the same brand of fringe wingnuttery as other perfectly reasonable ideas like the metric system, simplified spelling, and ending daylight savings time.

There’s no reason not to switch back over though, now that we’re in the age of the personal laptop. A Dvorak keyboard layout is, unlike road signs or time changes, just a settings adjustment away, and only your closest friends have to know you’re a wingnut. A quick google search shows that there’s even a free program for learning it. And if you want to nerd out about it even more, there’s an illustrated zine about it.

There are a lot of normal, everday things that we take for granted as they wear away at our bodies and spirits. Your keyboard layout is a very small one of those things, but, like riding a bike, it’s one of the rare ones that you can just get down to doing something about. I appreciate that.

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4 Responses to “Why I type funny”

  1. Heidi November 11, 2011 at 9:00 am #

    Hey Elly! You asked what our Dvorak stories are – I’m assuming you mean how we got started. In high school I was friends with a bunch of computer nerds who got me interested. I stuck with it for a few years, but went back to Qwerty in undergrad when I had to spend too much time in computer labs switching the layout back and forth on Windows (a slightly clunky process!). I came back to Dvorak about 8 years ago and haven’t looked back since.

    Last year when John shattered his elbow, we started looking into other alternative keyboard layouts, too. I was amazed by the sheer number that have been developed, many by/for the military for single-handed use. Pretty fascinating stuff!

  2. Alex Reed November 22, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    I switched to Dvorak for a time in college, but then switched back, daunted by the hassle of switching shared computers’ keyboard setups to Dvorak every time I wanted to use one.
    I would probably switch back again if I were self-employed (and therefore didn’t use shared computers in conference rooms at work).

  3. Alexis Grant November 29, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Ah! I’d forgotten all about this. I got started with it when I had RSI in graduate school and bought a Kinesis, which you can switch easily from one layout to the other in hardware. I had been studying the different types of keyboards and layouts and figured anything that would make my typing easier had to be good, and I was learning the new keyboard feel and couldn’t type fast at that time anyway due to pain, so switching wasn’t getting in the way of typing fast.

    I never switched back to QWERTY on the Kinesis, but I still use QWERTY on flat keyboards — my brain is programmed to switch between the two layouts based on the physical keyboard feel (amazing when I think about it). I also use a modified Dvorak layout since there’s a few things I don’t like about the regular one and the Kinesis is customizable. So I’m kind of a closet Dvorak user. I can’t use QWERTY-layout Kinesis keyboards, or Dvorak flat keybords, so it’s easy for me to pretend to be normal when I use everyone else’s computers. :)

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