I have described the Shwa script as a universal writing system, but of course it's actually a reading system. But Shwa also has a universal writing system, a standard keyboard so that you can enter text wherever you go. If you've ever tried to write French or German using an English keyboard, for instance, you understand the advantage.
The Shwa keyboard has only 20 keys, about the same as the keyboard on your (dumb) cellphone or a calculator :
Obviously, if we're going to enter all the Shwa letters we need more than 20 keys. There is a simple trick: we spell each letter using two keys: a keypair. To enter a character, first you press the key for the top of the letter, then the key for the bottom of the letter.
The keys are marked with the vowels, and sometimes it isn't obvious what the corresponding consonants are, so here's a cheat sheet :
Not all of the bottoms are used for Shwa letters, and several more are only used for one semivowel. Notice that the bottoms in the middle row are reflected: the shapes that open to the side should be considered to open on either side.
The Dot is used when the top or bottom is missing:
So for example, if you wanted to type the name Shwa, which is spelled in English, on a keyboard, you'd enter these keys :
The single keyboard above is great for mobile phones, where you're only using one hand. But Shwa keyboards for computers - where both hands are free - usually use a double keyboard. The lefthand keyboard is simply the mirror image of the righthand keyboard, so you use the same fingers for each shape. It looks like this:
To use the double keyboard, you press the the key for the top of the letter on the left with your left hand and the key for the bottom of the letter on the right with your right hand. The two keys can be pressed in either order, or one can be held down while the other is pressed, so it's faster than the single version.
To type the word on the double keyboard, you'd enter these keys :
It's also possible to produce large keyboards with one key for each letter needed for one language, just like we have now. They make typing faster, but aren't universal (like current keyboards).
Most of you will use a Shwa virtual keyboard, which pops up on your screen (or your phone) when you need to enter Shwa. One big advantage is that the key legends reflect the current mode and state. So, for instance, if you have already typed the key to indicate the top of a letter, the keyboard would look like this :
No keyboard has enough keys for everything we might want to type, so most keyboards use tricks to give each key multiple meanings. For example, a typical computer keyboard has a Shift key, a Control key, an Alt key, and maybe even an Alt-Gr key, a Function key or another special key. All these keys change the meanings of other keys when you hold them down.
Shwa keyboards avoid these shifty keys in favor of different keypads. A keypad assigns a meaning to each key, and that key keeps that meaning until you change keypads. There are keypads for cursor keys, for numbers and mathematics, and even for traditional scripts like the Roman alphabet. A program might use a keypad to assign common commands to the keys; for example, a music program might use the Shwa keyboard as a piano keyboard.
The various keypads form a hierarchy, a tree. At the base of the tree is the Home keypad. You can always return there by pressing the Home key:
From this keypad, you can choose which script you want. For example, the 1 key at center left offers you a numeric keypad for the familiar Indo-Arabic numerals. The other keys offer you various other scripts. The blue wheel at upper left represents all the Indic scripts, those derived from Brahmi. If you press that key, this is what you'd see:
But if you want to enter Shwa, you press the Shwa key instead, and the Shwa keypad appears.
The Shwa keyboard is normally augmented by a row of Control keys across the top:
The Backspace erases the letter to the left of the cursor (usually the last one you typed).
The Home key takes the keyboard all the way back to the Home keypad, where you get to choose which script to use.
The Escape key brings you back one level towards Home.
The Enter key says you're finished typing, at least this bit, and now it's the turn of your application or correspondent to react.
Here's what that looks like:
The double keyboard offers the four control keys at the top of the righthand side, and another set of four white keys at the top of the lefthand side. These four keys are "shift" keys which put the righthand keypad into a numeric mode: either decimal, reverse, hexadecimal or formula mode. We'll talk about them later. Here's what that looks like:
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