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.