The QWERTY effect

[podcast]https://edwardwillett.com/wp-content/uploads//2012/04/The-QWERTY-effect.mp3[/podcast]I took to typing like…well, like a writer to a keyboard. In high school I was always the fastest typist in typing class. Possibly it was genetic: my mother, who worked as a secretary, was a very fast typist. Possibly it was because I was highly motivated: my handwriting was (and is) atrocious.

Anyone who has learned to touch type has probably wondered about the peculiar arrangement of the standard keyboard, usually called QWERTY. Why aren’t the letters in, say, alphabetical order?

The fact is, some of the earliest typewriters did have keyboards in alphabetical order. But they had a problem: alphabetical order put some frequently used letter pairs too close together on the keyboard, resulting in mechanical clashes.

QWERTY was invented in 1868 and adopted by Remington for the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer, whose brand name eventually became the generic name of all such machines—one sure sign of a commercial success.

The other sign of the machine’s success is the fact that its QWERTY layout was soon adopted by all other manufacturers.

QWERTY was designed to prevent the mechanical clashes that arose in early machines when two adjacent keys were struck in quick succession. It did that by separating frequently used letter pairs to opposite sides of the keyboard. (It also, not coincidentally, contains all the letters for the word “typewriter” in the top row, allowing salesmen to easily demonstrate the machine.)

QWERTY is now everywhere, which means that most of what you read passed, at some time, through a QWERTY keyboard. And now there’s research that suggests that the QWERTY arrangement actually affects the emotional content of what we read.

Linguists and psychologists talk about the “articulators” used in language production. They usually mean part of the vocal tract, but with so much language being produced using a keyboard, increasingly we’re letting our fingers do our articulation for us.

In spoken language, a portion of the meaning of words is linked to the way they are articulated. Researchers Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto wanted to find out if the same held true for typed language.

How does this supposed effect work? The QWERTY keyboard is asymmetrical: there are actually more letters on the left side of the midline than on the right. This means it is slightly more difficult to type words that use left-side letters than those that use right-side letters (something which has been demonstrated experimentally).

The researchers decided to test the hypothesis that “right-side words,” because they are easier to type, might be viewed more positively than left-side word. Not only that, but this might carry over to spoken language, because touch-typists (like me) actually implicitly activate the positions of keys when they read words.

To test this, Jasmin and Casasanto conducted three experiments, using three QWERTY-using languages (Dutch, Spanish, and, of course, English.) In the first, they set out to find out if the QWERTY effect carried across different languages—and found that it did. They showed participants a list of words and had them rate the emotional “valence” on a scale of one to five (using “manikins,” a smiling figure at the positive end and a frowning figure at the negative end).  Overall, words with more right-side letters were rated to have a more positive meaning than words with more left-side letters.

Next, they tested whether QWERTY influences new words more than old words…and found that the QWERTY effect was indeed more apparent in words coined after the invention of QWERTY.

Finally, they tested for the effect with pseudowords, made-up words with no meaning. (Science fiction and fantasy writers take note! We make up words all the time.) Sure enough, made-up words with more right-side letters were judged to have more positive meanings.

In the words of the researchers, “It appears that using QWERTY shapes the meaning of existing words and may also influence which new words and abbreviations get adopted into the lexicon and the ‘texticon’ by encouraging the use of words and abbreviations whose emotional valences are congruent with the letters’ locations on the keyboard.”

And the practical applications?

“People responsible for naming new products, brands and companies might do well to consider the potential advantages of consulting their keyboards and choosing the ‘right’ name.”

And for what’s it worth, I just realized that my name, Edward, is typed entirely using the left-hand keys.

It’s a wonder I have any friends at all.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2012/04/the-qwerty-effect/

1 comment

    • Lektu on April 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm
    • Reply

    From Language Log, professor Libermann’s critique and the authors response:

    “The QWERTY effect” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3829)

    “QWERTY: Failure to replicate” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3837)

    “Casasanto and Jasmin on the QWERTY effect” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3844)

    “Response to Jasmin and Casasanto’s response to me” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3848)

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