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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Esperanto memo: Race not to swift

I am typing this using the Dvorak keyboard layout, at about ten words per minute. My wrists have been hurting from typing, so I decided to learn Dvorak and use it to write about itself, following the spirit of 1905 Esperanto world congress, which was conducted entirely in Esperanto.

I love constructed alternatives of all types--Esperanto, the Dvorak keyboard, circadian-correcting 25-hour days, and religious humanism (L. L. Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, also created a humanist religion, Homaranismo in Esperanto, based on the teachings of Hillel).

Esperanto, which means "hope" in Esperanto, relies on just that--the dream that one day there will be a critical mass of speakers and the language will have been worthwhile. But once you start constructing a language to be simple and universal, when do you stop? The genie can't be put back in the bottle.

One group of early esperantists sensed that Esperanto's quirks were not helping its popularity. Some of its unusual diacritic marks (carats and curlicues) occur in no other language, and its vocabulary choices were unfortunate ("lernejo" for school, instead of a variant on "school" which occurs in nearly every European language). They proposed a revised version of the language, called Esperanto II, that solved these problems.

Later others built on this in another direction, returning even more Latin and Indo-European cognates to Esperanto in the beautiful offshoot languageIdo (Esperanto for "descendent"), but at last count the annual international Ido conference attracted only 17 participants (at least it was in beautiful Toulousse). Volapük and
Interlingua aren't doing much better. When Esperanto speakers mock your numbers, you know you are truly irrelevant.

To get a sense of what some of these languages look like, "Give us this day our daily bread" in Esperanto is "Nian panon ĉiutagan donu al ni hodiaŭ", in Ido "Donez a ni cadie l'omnadiala pano", in Interlingua "Da nos hodie nostre pan quotidian" and in Volapük "Bodi obsik vädeliki govolös obes adelo!" (commands carry an exclamation point to avoid ambiguity).

Dvorak is a lot like these constructed languages--unpopular, and a little weird, but better. Thankfully, a keyboard layout doesn't suffer from obscurity the same way a language does, because you can change your layout without having to find others who will change with you. In fact, if you use Windows XP, all you have to do is activate the taskbar's Language bar, and add to it the keyboard layout "United States-Dvorak". [Editor's note from later: it's also trivially easy on a Mac.]

A selling point of Esperanto et. al is the ease of learning. Dvorak fits right in with these; it's coming to me quickly and so far it feels good. (Did learning Qwerty set my brain up not only for that particular layout, but for memorizing finger positions in general? Maybe Steven Johnson is right about video games after all. I swear I can feel my brain stretching and remapping itself.)

This superiority of feel and ease of learning are why Dvorak is trumpeted as a classic example of the inertia of bad standards. The story goes that it's the keyboard layout we would all be using if we weren't all stuck with the inferior Qwerty, which was designed purposely to slow us down.

Not surprisingly, it turns out
the real story is much more mundane. Qwerty wasn't designed to be evil, it was just thrown together. And while Dvorak is faster--by 5-10% for trained typists--most of us don't do enough hardcore typing for that to matter. Dvorak prosletyzers claim it eliminates repetetive pain, but is that just wishful thinking? I admit I'm now shocked to see the letter j, which is tied with x at 8 Scrabble points, on Qwerty's home row, but I don't know if the reach Qwerty requires for r (which by all rights should have j's spot) is really so insufferable.

Plus, like Esperanto, Dvorak has some problems of its own. I use common keyboard shortcuts like Control-s, Control-x, and Control-v, and Dvorak moves these letters to unfamiliar places. Dvorak also rearranges punctuation, brackets and dashes, whose placement now requires memorizing since I've lost the visual cue. And why must Dvorak uproot d, s, and h, all of which are already on Qwerty's home row, only to put them somewhere else on the home row? Why move z, x, v and b at all, when these are already in the bottom row ghetto?

Luckily, since keyboard layouts aren't held back by the inertia of loyalty to existing users, versions branch off more easily than do their utopian cousins, constructed languages. No sooner am I learning Dvorak than I find the Asetion keyboard, which solves most of my problems with Dvorak (and makes the useless Caps Lock button into a second Backspace key, a genius move). Where Dvorak remaps 34 keys, Asetion only moves 16 ( has a nice visual comparison between each of them and Qwerty). I decide to abandon Dvorak. But like an Esperanto speaker who finds a better universal language, leaving means I've wasted my time, and it means I'm marginalizing myself even further for the sake of a perfection that may never be realized.

I glance at the top of the Asetion website, where it announces that Colemak, its much-improved successor, has been released. Colemak (bad band name, bad baby name, but great keyboard layout name, no?) takes unwanted u off Asetion's home row and puts in righteous r. It also returns m to its Qwerty position, pushing the semicolon over into Qwerty's n spot, which is just weird. Fewer keys are shared with Qwerty, so that they can have more ideal placement, but the efficiency gains hardly seem worth the trouble.

I'll settle for Asetion, the option that keeps the most of what I'm already familiar with. As for which utopian language to endorse, maybe I should follow the same reasoning and choose Basic English, a kind of newspeak with 850 words whose creator claimed can be learned in two months, which was intended not as a replacement for English but as a lingua franca among non-native speakers.

Ecclesiastes 9:11, which George Orwell quotes in Politics and the English Language as being so bold and concise it could never be written by our contemporaries, reads in King James:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to
them all.
And here it is in the Basic English Bible:
And again I saw under the sun that the reward goes not to him who is quick, or the fruits of war to the strong; and there is no bread for the wise, or wealth for men of learning, or respect for those who have knowledge; but time and chance come to all.
That just took me two minutes to write using Asetion and I barely missed the poetry. I'll take them both.

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