A New Perspective on Typing

Now that I have more time on my hands thanks to the summer holiday, I’ve been looking into a thing that I’ve been interested in for a while: alternative keyboard layouts. A few years back, I learned touch typing, and it’s massively improved my ability to type. Already, I was a fairly quick typist with a manner of ‘hunt-and-peck’ typing, using three fingers per hand to reach around 110 words per minute. However, it was also somewhat error-prone, and caused undue strain for only a small set of fingers. So, a while back I learned how to properly use touch typing, which slowed my typing speed a bit but increased my accuracy while decreasing strain.

One thing that I learned while learning touch typing is the fact that the qwerty-layout of most English-language keyboards was designed to slow down typists to avoid typewriters jamming up because of people typing too swiftly. Computers, clearly, don’t have this concern anymore, though most English-language keyboards do still use the qwerty-layout. So, some people have worked on changing the layout to increase typing speed once more, resulting in layouts such as Dvorak and Colemak, which focus on putting more common letters right on the home-row (the central row where your fingers rest with touch-typing).

The past week or so, I’ve been learning about Colemak via learncolemak.com and practicing with this new layout over on keybr.com. I was quite happy to discover that switching keyboard layouts is tremendously easy in Linux, requiring just a simple command:

setxkbmap -model pc104 -layout us -variant colemak

As you can imagine, switching back just involves the same command but without the listed variant. The only thing remaining is that the actual letters on the keys would then be incorrect. However, since touch typing involves learning all the keys through muscle-memory, there’s no point in looking at the keys in any case. In the long run, though, since I do have a Keychron K2 mechanical keyboard, I could just switch the keycaps over to a Coleman layout if I would be interested.

Still, it’ll take quite some daily practice before I’m comfortable enough to switch over like that. For the time being, I may end up using the following command to easily switch between three separate layouts:

setxkbmap -model pc104 -layout us,us,us -variant ,intl,colemak -option grp:alt_shift_toggle

Using this snippet in my i3wm configuration file, I can use alt+shift to on-the-fly change between standard qwerty-layout, an international “dead keys” layout that allows me to use punctuation to insert diacretics for typing in Dutch, and the Colemak keyboard layout.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this new layout will be treating me. In the meantime, I’ll keep on enjoying how easy things are to set up in Linux (never thought I’d be saying that, but here I am!).

2 thoughts on “A New Perspective on Typing”

  1. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of QWERTY, because it’s so ingrained.
    For movable type, there are ‘type cases’ (‘letterbak’) with a fixed layout so that typesetters could pick the right letters quickly, regardless of which font they were using. Of course letters that are used often (like the ‘e’) have a larger space — you also needed more copies of that letter, right? At the very end of the sequence are the J and the U. It’s not like these letters are the least used, so why are they at the end?
    That is because the layout of the type cases was fixed before the J and the U were separate letters — until then, the I and V were used instead. And the layout was so ingrained that nobody ever succeeded in changing it…

    If speed of typing is paramount, why not switch to steno right away? There’s quite a few DIY steno keyboards out there…

  2. I doubt QWERTY will get dumped either; I also don’t think that’ s a particularly necessary thing to do. For one, there’s already other layouts (German and French layouts, for instance), and languages where it isn’t even relevant (Japanese, Korean, and so on), and yet none of these have particularly influenced English keyboard layouts either.

    Speed isn’t so much the predominant advantage. In fact, world-record speed typist almost exclusively use QWERTY (though that may of course be a selection bias). I’m interested to see if it will also create a more comfortable typing experience, as with QWERTY I see my hands range all across the keyboard in trying to reach often-used keys that aren’t on the homerow. With Colemak, on the other hand, my hands are much more stable as I type right now. Of course, I’m also back down to 1/10th of my QWERTY typing speed as I’m trying to find the right keys, haha.

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