The QWERTY keyboard was once the envy of the world but not anymore.
On a bright fall morning at Stanford Tom Mullaney is telling me what’s wrong with QWERTY keyboards. Mullaney is not a technologist nor is he one of those Dvorak keyboard enthusiasts. He’s a historian of modern China and we’re perusing his exhibit of Chinese typewriters and keyboards the curation of which has led Mullaney to the conclusion that China is rising ahead technologically while the West falls behind clinging to its QWERTY keyboard.
Now this was and still is an unusual view because Chinese—with its 75000 individual characters rather than an alphabet—had historically been the language considered incompatible with modern technology. How do you send a telegram or use a typewriter with all those characters? How do you even communicate with the modern world? If you’re a Cambridge-educated classicist enamored with the Greeks you might just conclude Chinese scxt is “archaic.” Long live the alphabet.
But Mullaney argues the invention of the computer could turn China’s enormous catalog of characters into an advantage.
Mullaney is the author of two forthcoming books on the Chinese typewriter and computer and we discussed what he’s learned while researching them. His argument is pretty fascinating to unpack because at its heart it is about more than China. It is about our relationship to computers not just as physical obxts but as conduits to intangible software. Typing English on a QWERTY computer keyboard he says “is about the most basic rudimentary way you can use a keyboard.” You press the “a” key and “a” appears on your screen. “It doesn't make use of a computer’s processing power and memory and the cheapening thereof.” Type “a” on a QWERTY keyboard hooked up to a Chinese computer on the other hand and the computer is off anticipating the next characters. Typing in Chinese requires mediation from a layer of software that is obvious to the user.
In other words to type a Chinese character is essentially to punch in a set of instructions—a code if you will to retrieve a specific character. Mullaney calls Chinese typists “code conscious.” Dozens of ways to input Chinese now exist but the Western world mostly remains stuck typing letter-by-letter on a computer keyboard without taking full advantage of software-augmented shortcuts. Because he asks “How do you convince a person who's been told for a century and a half that their alphabet is the greatest thing since sliced bread?”
It’s China’s awkward history with the telegraph and the typewriter argues Mullaney that primed Chinese speakers to take full advantage of software when it came along—to the point where it’s now faster to input Chinese than English.
In the beginning it really was awkward.
When the telegraph came to China in 1871 the Chinese first had to bend their language to Western technology. The solution devised by a Dutch astronomer and a French customs officer was to assign a four-digit code to each character which was then translated into the dots and dashes of Morse. This worked but it put Chinese at a disadvantage. Numbers in Morse code contain five dots or dashes and letters only one to three which made Chinese telegrams both more expensive and less efficient. By some accounts when former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was on the road sending telegrams was his biggest expense.
The Chinese typewriter was a cumbersome obxt too. It had a tray bed of more than 2000 common characters. A typist sexted characters by maneuvering a chassis on top of the tray bed pushing a lever that struck the chosen character against the page. If you wanted to type an uncommon character you had to go hunting for it among thousands in a secondary tray bed.
At the same time dozens of inventors tried their hand on better ways to send telegrams or build typewriters. To do so they had to come up with new ways of indexing Chinese characters breaking them into subunits. Take for example the “four corner method” which notes the shape in each corner. Ten different shapes are assigned a number 0 through 9; going around the corners in a clockwise direction gives you a four-digit code to send telegrams or to organize characters in a typewriter. If you don’t write Chinese this might not seem particularly profound. But in fact it is a complete rethinking of the Chinese character.
It would be like if instead of spelling an English word letter by letter you represent it by noting the number of letters that are ascenders (d b l h) descenders (p y g j) or neither. The idea of choosing characters by inputting an abstract code was part of Chinese technology from the start.
So when the computer comes along the number of ways to input Chinese just exploded in the “input wars of the 70s and 80s” says Mullaney. Different input methods require different ways of thinking about Chinese characters. You might do it based on the four corners or three corners or radicals (subunits of Chinese characters) or stroke order. Others experimented with pronunciation-based systems that used the QWERTY keyboard taking advantage of software to translate letters into characters. And in a real breakthrough these systems were now predictive. You might for example input a string of characters by typing just the first letter corresponding with each character. In other words it’s predictive text.
所以，mullaney说，电脑问世后，七八十年代中文输入法大战如火如荼。不同的输入法代表着对汉字分解的不同思路。你可以用四角法 三角法 部首法，笔顺发等等的，还有些人想到了基于发音系统，结合英语键盘，通过软件来用字母解读汉字。一个真正的突破是，这些系统现在都是预言性的。你可以试试，只输入一串汉字对应的首字母（那叫拼音。。。），然后就会出来一串汉字。换句话说，这就是一种预知性文本。
The Chinese way of inputting text—the software-mediated way—will win out says Mullaney. Actually it’s already won out. Our mobile phones now have predictive text and autocomplete. It took the constraint of mobile to get Westerners to realize the limits of the simple what-you-type-is-what-you-get keyboard. But even then you could only get Americans to go so far.
The introduction of T9—the predictive texting system on early cell phones—illuminates that cultural gap. When the Seattle-based Tegic company first developed T9 it created a new letter arrangement on cellphones. The standard had always been 2 = abc 3 = def 4 = ghi and so on. As T9 users will surely remember several different words often match the same set of numbers so you might hit “4663” and have to key through “good” “home” and “hoof” before finally arriving at “hone.” But Tegic had initially developed a new way of assigned numbers to letter—not QWERTY or alphabet-based—optimized to prevent overlaps.
T9（在早期手机上的一种文本预测系统）的介绍显露出了这种文化差异。西雅图的特捷公司首先开发出T9，它创立了一个新的手机键位安排方式。标准以前一直是2=abc3 = def4 =ghi等等。就像T9用户肯定知道的， 以前有些不同的单词通常匹配相同的数字，所以你得按“4663” 然后依次跳过“good( 好）”“home（家）”和“hoof（蹄）”最后才能选择“hone（磨炼）"。“但特捷当年发明了一种新的数字键分配方式——不是QWERTY或其他基于字母表的优化键盘——以防止单词重叠。
It didn’t fly. “One of our early stage investors said ‘You are not going to change the letter arrangement on mobile keyboards’” recalls Tegic cofounder William Valenti. “We had to accept a less efficient input system because we had to be in the constraints of the existing letter arrangement.”
Arundo Donax R26; a day ago +16
Tom Mullaney has it exactly backwards. Chinese has to use predictive text because otherwise it's totally unworkable. English is efficient enough that it doesn't need predictive text except where it's a bit more convenient.
John Smith @Arundo Donax R26; 18 hours ago
You're right but he also says the Chinese were forced to innovate and now can (apparently) input faster than English while we've been complacent with our early advantage and can't innovate if we needed to.
Faster digital communication will probably become more important in the future though that's debatable.
Riley 1066 @John Smith R26; 11 hours ago +2
I doubt anything this article says is true.
Lewis Goudy @Riley 1066 R26; 10 hours ago
I was immediately skeptical when the disclaimer "not a technologist" prefaced a long screed about the structure and prospects of a technological domain.
Arundo Donax @John Smith R26; 12 hours ago +1
I'll suggest that the quality of what people say is more important than how quickly they can say it.
hailexiao @John Smith R26; 10 hours ago
Faster how? In what way? Is Chinese predictive input faster than English predictive input or just English non-predictive input?
John Smith @hailexiao R26; 2 hours ago
The writer says this in paragraph 6 but without any source and I can't find data backing it up. However this explains how hard it is to determine it: https://www.quora.com/What-is-th ... -Simplified-Chinese
Chris Crawford @John Smith R26; 17 hours ago
As I explain in detail below no system for entering Chinese scxt can match the overall speed of any alphabetic language under similar conditions.
JedRothwell @chris Crawford R26; 10 hours ago
You wrote: "As I explain in detail below no system for entering Chinese scxt can match the overall speed of any alphabetic language under similar conditions."
I expect you are right for keyboard methods but voice input goes at the same speed in all languages and it is much faster than typing in any language. So this technical problem will eventually fade away.
Chris Crawford @JedRothwell R26; 7 hours ago +1
Yes I agree entirely. At the level of speech all languages are essentially equal in overall performance. Each language has some interesting strength in one or two areas but overall there is simply no basis for arguing that any language is better than any other.
RobertSF R26; a day ago +11
I'm not buying the argument. In the end simplicity always wins out. The Western alphabet has won not because it is Western but because it is simpler.
Let's just look at the Western world. One of the reasons English is dominant is the fact that it is the only language with a Latin alphabet that uses no modifiers. It has an alphabet of 26 single-character letters. No double consonants like in Spanish. No cedilles no accents no bars tildes slashes or umlauts on its simple letters.
finnmcgowan @RobertSF R26; a day ago +10
I think English is dominant because that happens to be the language of the dominant global power.
The pain saved by skipping accents and umlauts is more than paid for by the exasperating complexities and inconsistencies in English grammar and pronunciation.
mashabell @finnmcgowan R26; 21 hours ago +3
Initially English became dominant because of the reach of the British empire. This was furthered by the expansion of US influence. Its exceptional grammatical simplicity has also helped to make it the world's most used second language. - It owes this mainly to the Norman conquest of 1066 which led to the upper classes switching to French and leaving English for nearly 300 years as the main language of just the lower classes who rid it of all the Latin grammatical complexity which still encumbers other European languages: http://englishspellingproblems.b ... glish-spelling.html
起初英语占统治地位是因为大英帝国的巨大疆域，后来美国的崛起又进一步加强了英语的影响。英语的语法极其简单，这也助其成为世界最大的第二语言。这还得归功于1066的诺曼征服英格兰，在那之后贵族们有近三百年时间摒弃英语改说法语，英语成了底层人民的主要语言，然后人们就剔除了英语中比较难的拉丁语法部分，到现在很多欧洲语言还受拉丁语法拖累。看视频 http://englishspellingproblems.b ... glish-spelling.html
Sadly when after 1430 it became controlled by the educated elite again its spelling was made increasingly chaotic and unfathomable
and led to English literacy acquisition becoming extremely difficult. That's why to this day 1 in 6 Anglophones don't even learn to read proficiently and nearly half have only very basic mastery of spelling.