What I learned about languages just by looking at a Turkish typewriter

I love typewriters. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Every conference room here at Medium is named after a typewriter company. At some point, I requested we make sure to have one with Turkish layout instead of an English one.

I don’t speak Turkish, and can’t read it either. I have never been to Turkey. I honestly don’t even know that much about Turkey. Why did I ask for a Turkish typewriter, then? Because it has one of the most fascinating keyboard layouts ever:

I wanted to share with you five things I learned just from observing and researching this layout.

1.
We’re not beholden to Q·W·E·R·T·Y

The Q·W·E·R·T·Y layout was infamously assembled together to disallow typewriters from jamming easily. Commonly used letters were spread around the keyboard not with ease of learning or ergonomics in mind, but to counteract the limitations of technology.

Many European countries followed in Q·W·E·R·T·Y’s footsteps, with simple modifications. Germans and Poles remixed it into Q·W·E·R·T·Z; French put together A·Z·E·R·T·Y. Many others took the Q·W·E·R·T·Y layout verbatim, and simply sprinkled the extra needed letters in its periphery.

You can imagine how horrible the idea of reusing the layouts is in principle. Even for languages that share identical alphabets, the letters appear in different combinations and frequencies. Just look at Scrabble: every language carefully assigns a different value to each letter, and puts a certain number of each tiles in the bag. Playing Scrabble in Romania with English tiles wouldn’t make a lot of sense, and yet throughout most of Europe we still use typewriters based on how English works.

Scrabble tiles in English (above) and in Carrier language used in parts of British Columbia (below). Based on a photo by Leo Reynolds.

Turkey decided to do something different. In 1955, following decade-long rigorous analysis of the language and studies of typing (including taking x-rays of muscles within fingers), the new “F layout” was introduced and eventually enforced as a national standard, at great difficulty and expense.

The new layout had nothing in common with Q·W·E·R·T·Y. It was ergonomically superior, and measured to be up to twice as fast in typing; Turkey went on to break dozens of world records in typewriting championships before the end of century.

Look at the English Q·W·E·R·T·Y layout above, and it will appear random. But from looking at the other typewriter, you can learn a great deal about Turkish. As I’m typing this article in English, my right pointing finger rests on j, which is very rarely in use (it accounts for only half a percent of letters). No such waste in Turkish; every key under your finger will be one of the most common letters.

2.
Accented characters aren’t always second-class citizens

For a small taste of Turkish, here’s that language’s most popular pangram:

Pijamalı hasta, yağız şoföre çabucak güvendi.

(Pangrams are short, surreal sentences that contain all the characters in a given alphabet. The above means “the patient in pajamas quickly trusted the swarthy driver.” The popular English equivalent is The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, containing all 26 English alphabet letters with little waste.)

With some exceptions (Greek, Russian, etc.), most European alphabets descended from Roman/Latin. They differ from English, though, in that they employ extra characters — usually the same as English letters, but with extra “decoration.” Some, for example Spanish, only need an extra ñ. Others, like Czech, come armed with an entire battery of new letters — in this case á č ď é ě í ň ó ř š ť ú ů ž — to express themselves fully.

It’s easy to dismiss those extra letters as unimportant and secondary. On typewriters or computer keyboards, they are often relegated to modifier keys (hold Alt+A together to type in å), or dead keys (press ` and then a to get à), even though they are often more common and deserve more prominence.

That’s not the case here. In Turkish, for example, ü and ş are more commonly used than c and v and p. People creating this keyboard layout knew that, and so characters unique to Turkish get prominent placing on first-class keys, right alongside the Roman letters.

Both of these two points — rejecting Q·W·E·R·T·Y and elevating the extra letters — are very powerful. To me, this keyboard says “we’re proud of our language and we will treat it with respect.”

3.
Each language has a crazy secret

In English and many other languages, there’s an i that, when capitalized, becomes an I.

But in Turkish, i gets capitalized to… İ, its tittle still there. But I exists also! And its lowercase form is, you guessed it… ı. Dotted i and dotless ı coexist in perfect harmony, and both have separate keys on the keyboard:

That’s crazy, right? Yes, but only in the way that driving on the other side of the road, or a different way of measuring temperature can feel crazy — solely because it’s different than what we’re used to. The way Turkey approaches i and ı is actually more logical than what other Roman languages do.

And many of those languages have themselves little fascinating idiosyncrasies like this one. In Dutch, a combination of ij exists as a separate character. English uses apostrophes for contractions, which is logical until it ain’t. After a century of living with ß changing into SS in upper case, German now has a brand new uppercase that many typographers still don’t know what quite to do with.

4.
Some of those other languages need to be accommodated also

It’s always hard to be the underdog. English keyboard has to cater to English only, but other languages can’t ignore English or other locally popular languages exporting some of their words.

Look at the Turkish keyboard. There are three letters, w, x, and q, in a somewhat unusual location: right next to the digits in the top row.

The Turkish alphabet — a b c ç d e f g ğ h ı i j k l m n o ö p r s ş t u ü v y z — doesn’t use all of the English letters. w, x, and q are nowhere to be found. And yet, they have to be on the keyboard for writing words in, or loaned from English. The three letters are demoted to the top row, farther away and harder to access, but they still need to be there.

You can also spot a dead key with ` and ^ accents (used for letters in words borrowed from Persian and Arabic that are pronounced differently), and a lonely é just above 2 (to accommodate French which was the western language affecting Turkish towards the the end of The Ottoman Empire and during early days of the Turkish Republic).

If you use the right kind of loupe, many keys, and many keyboards, can become fascinating history lessons.

5.
Punctuation is the first to go when sacrifices need to be made

The Turkish typewriter keyboard has the same dimensions as the English typewriter keyboard. There are no extra rows or columns of keys. So, given all the new characters, something will have to give. That something is, mostly, punctuation:

Compare the English keyboard on the left with the Turkish on the right. Ampersand (&) is gone, joined by both the pound (£) and dollar ($) keys. The = and + symbols are missing in action as well, and so is the semicolon (;).

Alright, that makes sense; most of those are not popular, and many can be substituted by words. But look closer and you will notice the absence of an exclamation mark (!), and even… the number 1!

Fortunately, typewriters have one property that computers never did — you can simply go back and type over things. So, a semicolon can be constructed by typing , over : An exclamation point? That’s apostrophe on top of a dot. Crude, but workable. And how about that number 1? No combining is necessary. The lowercase l looks pretty much the same, so you can just use that.

(Not kidding. That’s what people did. On many typewriters, 0 was missing as well, since uppercase O looked similar. A typographical crime, but one necessitated by circumstances.)

Since backspacing was often physically difficult — welcome to the mechanical world — typewriters invented a certain power user shortcut. To type two characters in one space you would hold the spacebar, press as many characters as needed, and then release the spacebar to move to the next position. Yeah. Proud of knowing the Konami Code? Pfft. Turkish people would use stuff like that decades before you did. And I wouldn’t even want to imagine how hard it must be to put together a typewriter for languages with alphabets numbering into hundreds of letters (like Tamil), or non-alphabetic languages like Chinese.


I bet there are more things I didn’t notice, and this is just one language. A separate article could be written about any other layout: how Russian typewriters required Shift to input top-row digits; what’s so important about Z so that Q·W·E·R·T·Y became Q·W·E·R·T·Z in German; what’s with the mysterious function-like ƒ symbol that can be found in Dutch keyboards. Not to mention non-Roman languages, or non-alphabetic ones; the stories of Chinese typewriters and how they influenced input methods deserve books.

There might not be a dozen of typewriters laying around you, but every computer you use is a virtual typewriter museum and a travel agent at once: the trick is to get into the control panel and explore the keyboard settings on your computer, or your phone.

If you find something interesting, please share!

And now, excuse me as I grab that typewriter and try to type my favourite Turkish saying, which seems very appropriate on one of the warmest San Francisco days this year.

And, by the way… That other green keyboard above that I claimed was an English keyboard? It’s not actually English. It’s an exercise for you to try to figure out which language it is. All the hints are in the story. Good luck!


Thank you so much to Ahmet Özkale for providing tons of information about Turkish language and culture, and to Joy Chen and Madeline Bermes for a photography session where we tried to capture the beauty of various typewriters. (Yes, you bet, there will be even more typewriter articles in the future.)

There’s now a Turkish translation of this article by Tevfik Uyar. Thank you!