Begin typing and you’ll get stuck at the first vowel. Attempt a period and you’ll be semi-coloned into a corner. There is a way to type an email address, but you can spend a very long time searching before you find it.

For English speakers, the first attempt to use a French computer keyboard is often a rude shock. Unlike in the UK or US, keyboards in France are based on the "AZERTY" system, a subtly but (to foreigners) infuriatingly different layout of letters from the American "QWERTY" system. Among AZERTY’s quirks are a different placement for the letter ‘a,’ a two-stroke procedure for typing a period and a system of ‘dead keys’ to allow the typing of accents. Numerals can be typed, but only after selecting upper case.

The two keyboard systems began to diverge at the end of the nineteenth century when the QWERTY keyboard on typewriters was judged unsuitable for writing in French. Further variations emerged in other French speaking regions, such as Belgium. 

Today there are signs that frustration with AZERTY is not limited to non-French speakers. The French Ministry of Culture has announced a project to reform the keyboard.

The aim is not to bring it in line with the rest of the world, but to reduce the difficulty that it creates for people attempting to type correctly in French. Writing accents on upper case letters is possible, but is so cumbersome that many French people no longer bother. Also complex in AZERTY is the “Ç”: an upper case "C-cedilla," making a sound like an "s."

But as with all eccentric old technologies, AZERTY has its fans. French journalist Agnes Pourier lives in both Britain and France and is used to switching between the two systems. For her, AZERTY remains clear a favorite.

“Each time we French people go to America what we find it [is a] QWERTY keyboard — we think it’s a scandal. The AZERTY keyboard is here to stay.” 

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International