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A lot has been written on the ever-developing software that translators and interpreters in the localization industry use, but what about the hardware? For those who are bi- or multilingual, grammar and vocabulary are not the only hurdles to communication—the typing and input methods specific to each language also require training.

Some languages have particularly steep learning curves when it comes to using their hardware. Here is a look at two of those languages’ keyboards and their histories, from the dawn of the typewriter to the universal keyboards we all use today.

Why inventing a Chinese typewriter was impossible

The Chinese writing system*, which boasts over 6,000 years of history, does not have an alphabet. Instead, written Chinese is comprised of roughly 20,000 characters (only 8,000 of which are still commonly used today). Students mostly learn these through mnemonics using the phonetic and semantic relationships shared between characters.

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Given the complexity of written Chinese, a functioning keyboard was not invented until the 1980s. Because each character is comprised of a combination of some 214 radicals (akin to roots) appearing in different arrangements, a functioning typewriter would have required thousands of keys. As a result, both Chinese and Japanese (Japanese utilizes a high percentage of Chinese characters in its written system), did not have an easy-to-use typing system until the advent of electronic word processing.

Biáng (of biángbiáng noodles)

chinese keyboards

Illustrated to the left is the most difficult character to write under both the traditional (L) and simplified (R) systems. It is so complicated that it famously cannot be typed on a computer.

Modern input methods for Chinese

Today, there are a number of methods that Chinese speakers can use to type. The first input method to be widely accepted by the general public was the ‘Cangjie’ input method, invented in 1976. This keyboard is still used by speakers whose language or dialect communicates using the traditional character set (i.e. Taiwan and Hong Kong), and it was the first method that allowed for a trained typist to reach 100 characters a minute. That being said, there is a steep learning curve to overcome, as each letter on the keyboard is attached to a radical, and a character is ‘typed’ by pressing the letters of the keys attached to each radical (see below).

chinese keyboards

The Cangjie keyboard (above) shows the 26 key radicals that can be used to input any character in the Chinese language. Below is an illustration showing how a set of typed letters can be used to identify a unique character. For example, “OH” identifies the character ‘rén’, which means ‘person’.

wubi input method

Another popular method in traditional Chinese communities is the Wubizixing (aka Wubi) method. Like the Cangjie method, Wubi also has steep learning curve, but a trained typist can reach 160 characters per minute, making it the fastest input method by far. The typist must know the first three parts of the character as well as the last, meaning this method requires extensive knowledge on the order and components of each character.

While the Cangjie and Wubi methods are extremely popular among speakers outside of the mainland, in mainland China, the Pinyin input method reigns. This method is by far the easiest, and it only requires that the person using it knows the character’s proper pronunciation in Pinyin (the Chinese phonetic alphabet) and how to recognize it. This has made typing in Chinese a breeze for both children and for students of Chinese as a second language.

Korea: A complicated and innovative peninsula

For those of you reading this who have been influenced by the ‘Hallyu Wave’ and have learned everything there is to know about Korea, this section might be not be for you. But for everyone else who needs to brush up on their Korean history and culture, a study of the Korean peninsula’s language is a great primer on a history that is as complex as it is fascinating.

In 1377, a Korean monk created the world’s first book printed using movable metal type—more than seventy years before Johannes Gutenberg’s “Forty-Two-Line Bible”. Soon after, the modern Korean alphabet, Hangŭl, was invented under the sponsorship of a benevolent king circa 15th century. If this is the case that both a modern-day writing system and state-of-the-art typesetting and printing methods have been in Korea for more than 600 years, then why was the first Korean typewriter not invented until 1949? The answer is of both historical and linguistic significance.

An alphabet does not always equal simplicity

The main stumbling blocks to creating the first Korean typewriter were the written language’s dependence on Chinese characters, and, later, the Hangul’s system of fitting all of the letters for a syllable into a uniform space. This first question was solved pretty quickly.

As Chinese was the first language in East Asia to have a written system, many of the surrounding cultures adopted Chinese characters to represent their oral languages. Korea did this as well, and until the 1990s, classical Chinese was used in all government documents, newspapers, and literary publications. When it came time to create the first typewriter, however, it was clear that continuing to use Chinese characters would not be a possibility, and so the decision was made to switch to the Hangŭl system for typing.

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Once this was decided, another problem arose. In Korean, each syllable contains between 2-6 letters. As a two-letter long syllable and a six-letter long syllable must both  take up the same amount of space on the page, the sizes of the letters and their positioning within the box must change depending on how many other letters there are in the syllable. For example, the letter “ㄱ” (a ‘g’ sound) must be written in 20 different ways in order for it to properly fit in every syllable in which it’s found.

With a total of twenty-four letters and multiple sizes required for each letter, how could a typewriter handle this conundrum? According to Young Back Choi, typing in Korean using “a mechanical typewriter would require 3-4 levels of shifting and frequent back-spacing,” at which point, you might as well just complete the task the old-fashioned way using pen and paper.

The modern Korean keyboard

The original Korean typewriters, the first being invented in 1949, could not create a pleasing enough version of typed Korean to satisfy the public and government’s aesthetic desires, and those that did were a nightmare to use. The modern-day keyboard (see below) was invented in 1969, and it made possible the shift from Chinese characters to 100% Hangŭl documents.

The left side of the Korean keyboard is divided into consonants and the right into vowels. The top left row contains the five double consonants and the bottom left row contains all of the aspirated consonants. On the right side of the board, vowels related to each other are placed next to one another, and the top right two buttons are coupled vowels. While traditionally each syllable is written from top to bottom and left to right, when typing, the letters can be typed in a linear fashion and they will automatically appear properly grouped into syllables.

Conclusions

Korean has changed considerably in response to the pressures of technology. Due to the typewriter’s physical constrictions, the decision was made to stop writing vertically and instead type horizontally from left to write. Additionally, the Hangŭl keyboard has led to the almost complete eradication of Chinese characters from the written language (though given how recent this development was, most living Koreans can still read and write some in classical Chinese).

Technology has not so much impacted the Chinese language as it has enabled it. The Cangjie and Wubi methods have made it possible for people to type extremely complex characters in a fraction of the time while boosting speakers’ knowledge of them. On the other hand, the Pinyin method has made it possible for mainland China to rapidly reach high rates of computer literacy and has made typing for non-native speakers simple beyond measure.

And the moral of the story is?

While these keyboards may seem much more complicated than the English ones is use today, students of Korean and Chinese can take heart in knowing that they are a breeze when compared to their predecessors.


*The term ‘Chinese’ is misleading, because Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as major dialects of these such as Taiwanese, are different languages, but because they are spoken by peoples originating from the Chinese continent and their written systems all use traditional or simplified Chinese characters, these languages are often grouped together as ‘Chinese’.

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