Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

A few posts ago, I mentioned my efforts to move to a Dvorak keyboard layout. Well, after a few weeks of working with Dvorak, I’ve stopped using it, and figured I’d discuss that choice here.

My reasons for moving to Dvorak were twofold. First, I type a great deal, and as such, any improvement in my typing efficiency would definitely have been welcome. I’ve never actually been able to touch type in QWERTY, and instead type with both wrists hovering aboard the keyboard, so I figured this would be a good time to learn to touch type as well. So, I gave it a shot, and taught myself to type using the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Why Dvorak?

After about two weeks of only using Dvorak to type (on my built-in QWERTY keyboard and an Apple Wireless, both still QWERTY), I got my speed up to about 30 words per minute (about half of my QWERTY typing speed). With a little chart hanging from my monitor, I was able to type comfortably in most contexts. Even with that little time, I found a few major advantages to Dvorak:

  • Dvorak is just plain more comfortable than how I was typing in QWERTY. Even though I typed more slowly, touch typing with Dvorak felt much, much better on my hands and wrists than my old QWERTY method did.

  • Dvorak makes sense. As a linguist, I appreciate when things are done with an understanding of how language works. Dvorak puts the sounds you need often within close reach.

  • Switching your computer is easy On a Mac, it’s as easy as picking a new keyboard layout, and on both my phone and tablet, I was able to use Swiftkey 3’s Dvorak keyboard, so it was universal across my devices.

  • Comma and period belong at “W” and “E”. This seemed silly when I first saw it, but man, moving comma and period up there is much more natural and quick than having them down by the arrow keys.

All of these things are wonderful, and make Dvorak a compelling option, which should likely be the default Roman keyboard around the world. But, I’m writing this message, so all was not ergonomic and wonderful.

Why not Dvorak?

I’m typing this from QWERTY, and have effectively shelved two weeks worth of hard work. Why? Well, I’ll focus not on the obvious reasons (switching keyboards, relearning), but on the ones that were the biggest factors for me personally.

  • Two weeks is just getting started. Two weeks seems like a long time, and felt like an eternity, but I was still only at half of my original QWERTY speed, and my computer-based productivity was still severely diminished. I’m sure I could’ve stuck with it and gotten my speed back, but the prospect of further months of work was a tough one to stomach, especially given the other concerns below. I found that, even two weeks in, the switch made using my computer a chore, not a

  • Muscle Memory is hard to break. I use mutt relatively frequently for sending and receiving email. As a part of mutt, you learn a great many keybindings, many of which make sense based on the letters they’re assigned to, and many of which I have muscle memory for. When I moved to Dvorak, my muscle memory for things like “Close vim and send the email” went away. Similarly, what little muscle memory I have for Vim disappeared, and things like Ctrl+C for “Kill a terminal process” went away. I used a “Dvorak + Cmd QWERTY” layout to try to minimize the loss of muscle memory for OS-level commands, but that only got me so far. I know that this, too, can be retrained over months (years?), but my existing facility with existing keystrokes made those two weeks a rough process, and really hurt my productivity.

  • Passwords Password fields (at least, the good ones) give you no feedback about what you’re entering, and when you’re entering your passwords, you can’t watch your keys (unless you change your keycaps around) to make sure you’re hitting the right letters. So, you’re forced to stare at the keyboard diagram and go symbol by symbol, and even then, you’re still going to mess up. This is less of an issue if you can rearrange your keycaps or use a Dvorak keyboard, but if you’re given a 20 character alphanumeric with symbols password to input, and 5 wrong answers lock you out, Dvorak (as a learner) is an awful place to be.

  • My IPA keyboard layout is not Dvorak Friendly. I use IPA fonts in OS X nearly every day, using the SIL Unicode Keyboard. This keyboard uses deadkey combinations to add IPA symbols, on top of a QWERTY keyboard. This is so that you can type your paper, homework or test normally, and then just add IPA symbols where needed using hotkeys and deadkeys. Using Dvorak removes that ability, so you’re forced to either type in QWERTY when using IPA, or to switch layouts every few words. This is a productivity drag that I have that few would, but a major factor in my decision.

  • Speech Recognition is getting very good. I’ve been using Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac since it came out a week or so back, and even using the built in mic on my Macbook Pro, it’s absolutely excellent. It’s not perfect (no system is), but I’m getting the best results I’ve ever gotten. This significantly reduces some of the long stretch typing that I’ve had to do, and speaking is more ergonomic than Dvorak or QWERTY.

  • I can do QWERTY better than I was doing. Most importantly of all, learning to touch type with Dvorak and use proper hand posture pointed out how bad my QWERTY typing posture was. I’ve spent some time since working on my QWERTY posture, and already, I’m able to type much more comfortably than I was before, with none of the other issues mentioned above.

So, you’re considering trying Dvorak? Here are my final thoughts!

The Takeaway

I’m glad I tried Dvorak, even now. It was a fascinating mental experiment, and made me think about typing in a way I never have before. My decision not to stick with it shouldn’t be viewed as a knock on the format itself, but just in my particular use case. If I hadn’t been using QWERTY for nearly 20 years, if I didn’t have so much muscle-memory built into it, if I had a few months of vacation for the transition, and if I didn’t use the IPA, I’d likely still be using it. I’m not sticking with QWERTY because it’s better, I’m sticking with QWERTY because the energy it would take to change my life to Dvorak would be greater than the savings I’d get from it.

If you’re just learning to type, use Dvorak. It can’t hurt, and it’ll definitely be easier in the long run. Similarly, if you do a lot of long-form typing without as much hotkeying, use Dvorak. But if you’re already set with QWERTY, already have a battery of hotkeys and muscle memory encoded in your brain, or if you use non-English or Modified-English keyboards often (which are often based on QWERTY), the change may not be worthwhile.

Ultimately, though, if you’ve got the time and the interest, it’s worth a try, even if just as a fun experiment in reprogramming your brain.

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