(Behind the scenes) The All-Elvish Tengwar Keyboard


Written by Troy Telford

I have a running tradition that when I move to a new job, I get a new keyboard. Sadly, that day has passed. It was clear it was time for me to move on, so I found a new place to work that suits me really well. In keeping with my tradition, I decided to get a new keyboard for my office computer. This time, I wanted something different. The all-blank keyboards have been done quite a bit, but I did want to have a mechanical keyboard – the mechanical switches feel a lot better, and they last longer too. So, what to do, what to do… then the thought popped into my head about making a keyboard in Quenya – Tolkien’s “High Elfish” language of Valinor. A perverse part of me looks forward to the “WTF is this!?!” look I’ll get when somebody tries to use it for the first time.

I spent a while doing research, and decided against the de-facto keyboard layout (from Dan Smith) already in use for Tolkien fans, and instead went with a layout that makes use of modern typographical technology. I ended up choosing a layout promoted by the Free Tengwar project, which also uses the UTF private space, instead of violating Unicode and reusing the ASCII character set. The Free Tengwar project also provides a number of fonts that use SIL’s Graphite font rendering technology. This allows me to let the computer decide where to put various accent marks used in Quenya, such as for every vowel.

The Dan Smith’s layout makes a certain logical sense, and is relatively good; but it’s also an artifact of its age. Smart Fonts (such as the Graphite fonts I used) didn’t really exist, so his layout and fonts operated within the limitations of the technology of the time. For instance, accent marks for vowels (called Tehtar in Quenya) have not one key, but four for each accent type. The user has to manually select the correct one so it’s aligned properly from left to right — like an animal.

I also appreciate the Free Tengwar project’s decision to keep the familiar QWERTY layout, with most keys having the similar sound in Quenya. There are some things that don’t map cleanly, so you have to be aware of them, otherwise you’ll write the what the sounds are like as if it’s an English keyboard, and end up with gibberish.

After I decided on the keyboard layout, I needed to find how to make it. Fortunately, Jeff Attwood (ofDiscourse and StackOverflow fame) had a blog post about a new keyboard he designed with WASD keyboards, the CODE Keyboard. WASD also sells a “sampler” kit with one of each keycap color, one of each Cherry MX switch type, and a few of each O-Ring type. This allowed me to decide exactlywhich switches and keycaps I wanted. It was like getting color swatches at the hardware store – I knewexactly what I was getting, as I was able to try everything first. As a bonus, I can use the “leftover” switches for electronics now. It’s pure win.

WASD not only makes the CODE keyboard, but they also allow people to design custom keycaps for their keyboards. WASD even provides layout templates for CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, and Inkccape.

So, I downloaded the template, made sure I had a version of Inkscape that supported Graphite smart fonts (generally only available on Linux), and got cracking.

Meanwhile, I also realized there were a number of keys that needed some work: ⎋, ↹, ⇪, ⇧, ⌘, ⌥, Menu, ⎈, ↵ and so forth. I did a first stab at translating them to Quenya myself, and came pretty close. I then looked around for someone who was active and knowledgeable. I found it in Quenya101, and I obtained a better translation for a few items, as well as the benefit of spelling/grammar fixes.

I then waited for WASD keyboards to have a keyboard with the Cherry MX clear switches that I wanted… it took about two weeks for the keyboard to get in stock, and then I placed my order.

It arrived today, and it’s a beauty. Here’s to many years of use for this keyboard!




Filed under Elvish, Keyboard, Quenya, Tengwar, Tolkien

16 responses to “(Behind the scenes) The All-Elvish Tengwar Keyboard

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  3. Would you be willing to make the design file available for those among us who would also like to purchase this wonderful keyboard? 🙂

  4. Cillendor

    I love this! I use the Graphite fonts nearly exclusively, and while I’ve memorized most of the keys, for those few symbols you use rarely, it can be hard to remember them. This is such a brilliant idea. Can others do this, too?

  5. And my goodly husband told me I was obsessive when I started reading the Quenya course and writing my grocery lists in tengwar…I am humbled by the depth of your commitment and by your bi-polar nature: i.e., a technologically savvy literature nerd.

    • Your husband hasn’t grasped the beauty of the language, that’s why he said that. Don’t worry!

      Love is something not to be explained, but to be felt!

      We love the language and that’s it!

  6. Filip Markebo

    I wanna have this, can i buy it somewhere?

    • That’s custom made. You gotta order at some place that makes that kind of stuff. Not that easy to find locally, but there’s no boundaries within Internet, right?

      • Roccorendil Riinion

        “How” do you order it, i mean, do i send pictures of this? Could you explain How to do it?

        • I cannot. I’m not the one producing it or even having it made. The one who did was Troy Telford as mentioned. Try contacting him on his site.

        • Hermith

          Yes, you can make it, relatively easily as well. Over at WASDKeyboards.com you can create your own custom layouts, both with and without the keyboard it self. If you have some experience in a Vector based image program such as Illustrator or Inkscape this shouldn’t be hard.

      • Filip Markebo, aka. Roccorendil

        Ok but could u walk me through the proccess?, i really really want this.
        do i give them pictures of this one or how does it work, never ordered something custom made peroid.
        Help me! XD

        thx in advance, i really appreciate any help!

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