We Researched How Chinese Keyboards Work, And It's Totally Nuts

chinese keyboard

Photo: Flickr

The written Chinese language will blow your mind.Each character is made up of an intricate series of strokes, sometimes as many as 64.

Combining these characters in different ways can give each one totally different meaning.

The largest Chinese dictionaries include around 56,000 characters.

Functional literacy requires a knowledge of between 3,000 and 4,000 characters.

And on top of it all, Chinese characters are the oldest continuously-used system of writing in the world.

So how the hell does it work on a modern computer keyboard? We checked out this Slate article and it turns out that people use lots of different methods.

It lets the writer use a standard keyboard to generate a wide variety of Chinese characters.

Using this method, characters aren't directly hardwired to each key. Instead, a short combination of keys will generate a specific character.

There's no standard method for this, however. Two Chinese different keyboards will probably look and function differently. It's up to each user to tweak the settings.

In the People's Republic of China, they use Pinyin

Pinyin is a system where writers would type out the transliteration of the Chinese word using our familiar Roman letters on a QWERTY keyboard. The computer automatically replaces the completed word with the corresponding symbol or symbols.

It's a little more complicated than that, though -- plenty of Chinese words sound similar but are written completely differently. A common workaround is to type a number after a syllable to indicate which variation is intended.

The best Pinyin methods use some clever tricks

Advanced Pinyin input software will make guesses on specific characters based the context of your writing.

Some will also let you assign shortcuts for certain words -- an English equivalent would be to set 'r-b-t' to automatically write the word 'robot.'

There's even a speed-typing method

It's called Wubi. You type a sequence of keys, not corresponding to the sound of the word, but to the shape of the character. The keyboard is divided into regions associated with the strokes in each character -- you 'type' the character by punching the keys corresponding to what each part of the character looks like.

A skilled Wubi typist can produce 160 characters per minute.

There's even an old-school way to do it

People who want to write characters by hand can use an electronic tablet. Because each character's strokes are very precise and distinct, the Chinese written language can be interpreted by a device relatively easily.

English keyboards can be pretty wild, too

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