Some thoughts about the Indic keyboard layouts

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/12/30 15:01 -05:00, original URI:

Last month, Suzanne was talking about The All-India Keyboard and she made several good points related to it usability when compared to some other layouts.

She specifically talked about the INSCRIPT keyboards:

This keyboard works well for Devanagari, with its 34 consonants and 12 vowels. The vowels are encoded as both initials and diacritics so that makes 58 letters altogether and a few more symbols. No upper and lower case so all is well.

I should interupt to point out that although the INSCRIPT keyboard may "work well" for Devangari, in the Windows 2000 timeframe Microsoft got a lot of feedback from native speakers that it was not the one that they preferred. This led to the inclusion of the Hindi Traditional keyboard layout, a layout that is generally considered to be more intuitive (it does has a lot in common with the INSCRIPT layout, but is not identical to it -- and little things can mean a lot).

(for illustrative purposes, here is the Devanagari INSCRIPT layout followed by the Hindi Traditional one so you can see what I mean:

(Every shift state has differences for the two keyboards -- in many cases due to what looks like additional characters being added that are not used for Hindi. That makes me wonder about the use of the Devanagari INSCRIPT keyboard for Devanagari script languages other than Hindi)

In any case, she then went on to talk about a place where the INSCRIPT layout did not even really seem to meet that minimum bar of "working well" for a language:

Tamil, on the other hand, has only 18 consonants and 12 vowels. These vowels have two forms, as in Devanagari. Because these forms are context dependent there is an argument that the two forms could both be input with the same keystroke. That would make 30 letters altogether. In that case, the basic Tamil writing system could be represented on the keyboard in the unshifted state.

Using the Inscript keyboard for Tamil means using a keyboard with 4 blank spaces in the unshifted state, while 3 more keys in the unshifted state have Grantha letters on them. These are letters for writing Sanskrit and are not part of the basic Tamil alphabet. Likewise 7 of the basic Tamil consonants are in the shift state.

Of course I am forced to disagree with the premise that the original keyboard was the right design (based on the customer feedback that led to an alternate layout being preferred!). Of course one of the most common problems that keyboard 'standards' suffer from attempting to capture a perfect technical solution for a language without trying to capture the usability concerns at the same time. :-)

But Suzanne was not referring to user expectations so much as appropriate layout for a language from a technical linguistic viewpoint. And note that if you are not a native speaker of a language you do not have the baggage of those user expectations, so from that point of view one could even claim that the use of a standard like the INSCRIPT layout across multiple Indic scripts has the advantage of making typing across the various languages easier. However, it is worthwhile to point out that the layouts themselves are considered to be non-optimal by native users of the languages in many cases, even if they are a good technical solution for non-native users of a language.

Now there is a special usability problem with trying to describe one language in terms of another -- it is easy if you primarily know the original language, but this ease is to the detriment of the target language in many cases.

(I hinted about similar issues in Korean in this post; I may talk more about that another day.)

This is the situation with the Tamil keyboard layout in Windows.

So although I disagree with Suzanne's chain of logic, in the end we agree about the conclusion that the keyboard is not optimal for Tamil. We just took two very different paths to get to the answer. :-)

All of this does of course lead to some additional questions, which will be topics to post about in the upcoming year....


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# Abhinaba Basu [MSFT] on 2 Jan 2006 1:05 AM:

Great to see this post. Yesterday I was trying to type Bangla on WinXP SP2 box. You can see the results in I was super-happy when I was able to type someting like কেন্দ্রে and it worked flaw-lessly!! I had worked a tiny-bit in Uincode text layout and I could just feel the amount of work Uniscribe had done to handle all of it...
However there are many usability issues.
1) The on-screen Bangla keyboard is just not-usable. For some reason the glyphs are so small I couldn't read anything on it and there is no way to enlarge. I typed and printed the keyboard in a paper and use that as the layout clue
2) the glyphs in default font size is also way to small. For notepad each time I need to change fontsize to atleast 14 to make the text readable. This happens everywhere, like I cannot read the date (month) in the tray if I use bangla date/time
3) The other issue is the keyboard layout. I agree that the vowel form can be switched based on context without the need for the shift key.
4) I do not know the historical reason for the keyboard layout (any specific standard??) butI'd have preffered if they were a bit phonetic like P-প and N-ন M-ম and so on. The only one already like this (coincidence?) is K-ক

Anyways thanks a great deal for the super-cool Bangla support in XP-SP2. I tried out all the compex combinations I could think of and they worked flawlessly. If only the keyboard was a bit more intuitive...

# Suzanne McCarthy on 3 Jan 2006 1:25 AM:

I admit to lack of logic there. I haven't spent much time keyboarding Hindi. I think I tried it once. I was trying to be polite about something I didn't know about - more or less wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt on Hindi. In any case someone must have designed the keyboard for Hindi. It wasn't designed for any other language that I can see.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 3 Jan 2006 1:49 AM:

If you look at the differences between them, it is clear that the INSCRIPT layout for Devanagari is intended to handle other languages in addition to Hindi -- though it is unclear whether that makes it the best keyboard for all of those languages (in fact if the lesson from Hindi applies then it probably is not)....

# Suzanne McCarthy on 3 Jan 2006 1:59 AM:

You are right. Of course, it was designed for someone to use with all of the scripts of India. There was some notion that this should or could be done. I assumed that it was designed for Hindi first I have only tried it for Tamil. I have used it for Punjabi but I can't remember how that felt. Actually I have only researched and tried out with a native speaker the Tamil keyboard, as far as Indic goes. I worked for months on finding a way to keyboard Tamil as you know. I kind of lost energy after a while and after problems with Vietnamese, I thought I would give keyboards a break for a bit.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 3 Jan 2006 2:16 AM:

Perfectly reasonable, it is a rough area (and gets heavily involved in standards, quickly -- I will be blogging about that too, eventually).

The strength of something like INSCRIPT if you know one language is the ease of getting started with other languages with which one is unfamiliar. But for someone who does understand the language, this strategy can and likely will work against the user.

# Sathish on 4 Jan 2006 2:39 AM:

you nailed it! inscript layout for multiple indic scripts penalizes native tamil users.. its the same lame excuse invoked for iscii/unicode fiasco for tamil script.
I prefer the tamilnet99 tamil keyboard and even with all its quirks, i hear it works well for kids too in singapore schools. inscript, with wide support in many OSes probably trails 99/typewriter keyboard usage at commercial (& publishing) installations.

# N Nirmalananthan on 12 Feb 2006 3:01 PM:

I completely agree...

My first language is English, my mother tongue Tamil and I am learning Hindi. Having just set up Indic script support in XP I was massively frustrated by the default Keyboard layout for Tamil...

The XP keyboard layout for Hindi makes sense in terms of the alphabet structure and the language, and is relatively intuitive. The Tamil keyboard layout is simply a near-direct transliteration from the Hindi layout with no adjustment for the Tamil letter classifications, groupings or frequency of letter use...

I have now created my own layout using the MS Keyboard creator grouping equivalent consonant pairs on shift etc. Works much more fluidly for me...

KonstantinMiller on 6 Jul 2009 10:33 PM:

I have been looking looking around for this kind of information. Will you post some more in future? I'll be grateful if you will.

ashish dewang on 29 Jul 2012 11:06 AM:


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