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DROP’s Lord of the Rings Keyboard is for Newbies, not Nerds

Image for article titled DROP's Gorgeous Lord of the Rings Keyboard Broke My Elvish-Loving Brain

Photo: io9 | Linda Codega

When I first received my DROP x Lord of the Rings keyboard, it was one of those packages that you come home to after a trip: a delightful surprise, and one I had been looking forward to since I had first agreed to write a review of the new Lord of the Rings special edition. I debated between the Elvish and the Dwarvish, and finally decided that despite how much I loved the illustration on the Dwarvish keyboard (a rendering of the door to Moria), I was really an Elf Boy at heart, and requested that version for review.

I wasted no time setting it up. Sure, I had just come off an international flight three hours beforehand, but I figured why not, let’s get crack-a-lackin. I immediately replaced some of the green keycaps with the additional orange caps (thank you, YouTube, for the helpful tutorial which generally boiled down to “the keycaps will pop off before you can break them, so grab a pry and just go for it”). I plugged everything in, and immediately started typing away.

All was well. I summoned no evil shades from ages past, the Valar remained in the Undying Lands, dead Númenórean kings remained undisturbed, truly it seemed perfect. The tippy tappies were tip-tapping, and for a full 12 hours I remained delighted, so pleased with this neat little keyboard that was aesthetically pleasing, gave me so much room and allowed me to write quickly and with the deep-seated satisfaction that comes from hearing keycaps go clicky-clicky.

The DROP x Lord of the Rings keyboard also has some cute little extras—an illustration of the twin trees of Valinor over the arrow keys, a broken Narsil on the enter key, the One Ring on the command key, the eye of Sauron on the the escape key—charming additions that made my little nerd heart go pitter-patter as I, wonderfully besotted with the beautiful mint green base, ivory keys, bright orange additions, saw nothing amiss.

I was blinded by a combination of nostalgia and feeling like a professional writer, with my big keyboard that demanded attention and focus to write on. Every word, every letter, needed to be pressed down, not just tapped, and I reveled in this sense of power and control, ignoring the darkness that grew in a land far to the east. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the way that mechanical keyboards feel. I’ve never owned a mechanical keyboard, at least not since my family computer back in the early aughts, and while I was still in my post-travel phase I didn’t notice what was right in front of my eyes. Yet, in the darkness of my office, with the backlights off, the shadows waited.

In the cold morning after receiving this delightful little thing, this wonderful piece of technology, I noticed something passing strange. First, last night, I had noticed that the function keys were presented F#, using the commonly-accepted Tengwar for F (formen) and the subsequent Elvish numeral. This originally assured me that all was well with my cute little keyboard. (A fun fact! Elvish math is developed on a base-12 system, which is reflected in the function keys.) What I didn’t notice the night before was that the number keys directly below the function row did not correspond to the Tengwar numerical system, and were entirely different symbols. I paused. I checked the F key.

The F key, which has both the latinate and the Tengwar legends printed on the cap, displayed the latin “f” alongside the Tengwar letter anca, which transliterates as the voiced valar fricative “ɣ” or “gh”—a digraph that does not exist in Modern English, and is definitely not the letter formen that the keyboard used to precede the numbers on the function key. For the big language nerds, I want to say that there is another Tengwar letter, unquë, the labiovalar nasal “gh,” which we do use in English (Hugh)—but regardless, this is not the Tengwa formen. I pulled up a Sindarin translator (some of the keycaps had Sindarin phrases, so I assumed the keyboard would use the Sindarin-Tengwar transliteration) and to my growing dismay I realized… none of these Tengwa legends matched the Latin keycaps.

Yes, the vowels in Sindarin are generally indicated by graphenes that adjust the pronunciation of the succeeding phoneme letter, but by and large, you can imitate a one to one transliteration, or, at the very least make an attempt. Also, if you wanted to write in the Beleriand style of Sindarin (which is completely useless, even moreso than writing in a fictional language might be in the first place, considering Beleriand fell into the sea at the end of the First Age), you could use letters as vowels and ignore graphenes entirely. But besides the fact that Beleriand-style Sindarin is again, utterly without a usecase, I love little dots and swirlies and will not give them up.

This keyboard, for all its delightful presence, its charming mein, its wonderful sounds and well-translated Sindarin phrases, ultimately fails in what should be the basic consideration of this keyboard: to match up similar sounds within phonetic alphabets. While the configuration of the keycaps seems, at first glance, to be a totally random assortment of letters and sounds, I attempted to make sense of it. It took some digging, but finally, I realized… this was a keyboard sorted according to the sound series of each individual letter, as outlined by J.R.R. Tolkien in his explanation of Quenyan syntax. If you weren’t off the deep end of Tolkien’s collection of Middle-earth language already, brace yourselves.

Entry for nerds only, I’m so sorry

Entry for nerds only, I’m so sorry
Image: J.R.R. Tolkien

Above you can see a chart of how to group the individual letters of Tengwar according to the glottal sounds they make, which are reflected in the shape of the letters themselves. The first sound-considerations are divided up in each column, which, when letters are written downwards, are called témar. In short:

  • Tincotéma: dental sounds such as /t/, /d/, /n/
  • Parmatéma: labial sounds such as /p/, /b/, /m/, /f/
  • Calmatéma: velar sounds such as /k/, /g/
  • Quessetéma: labiovelar sounds such as /kw/, gw/, /ñw/
  • Tyelpetéma: palatal sounds such as /sh/, /j/

Additionally, looking at the rows, you can see the témar crossed against the “manner of articulation,” called tyeller.

  • Series 1: voiceless plosives such as /p/, /t/, /k/
  • Series 2: voiced plosives such as /b/, /d/, /g/
  • Series 3: voiceless fricatives such as /f/, /sh/
  • Series 4: voiced fricatives /v/, /ð/, /ɣ/
  • Series 5: nasals such as /n/, /m/
  • Series 6: approximants

So, looking at DROP’s keyboard it appears that the first row (which would typically start with a tilde or dash) starts with the vowel control symbol (a straight line over which the vowel indicator can be drawn), and then proceeds down the tincotéma column for the first six letters. The first row then continues in kind of a random assortment of additional sounds–the seven corresponds to the romen, eight to the silme, and nine to the hyarmen Tengwar. The second row of letters starts similarly, going down the parmatema column and including, once again, a rather random assortment of additional sounds, none of which correspond to any of the English legends. This occurs again for the third and fourth rows, which are both filled up with the extra letters in the spare keys after the six Tengwa from each glottal sound.

So I figured out why the keyboard is arranged this way—mostly—but it still doesn’t make sense. Why structure the letters to align with the constructed sorting of the phonetic breakdown of the Tengwar alphabet, a detail maybe three people will notice, and not align the Tengwar to the QWERTY keyboard? The QWERTY keyboard is, after all, not an alphabetized keyboard; why then did these keycaps come, more or less, alphabetized according to the Tengwar?

I consulted with my colleague Florence Ion over on the tech side of Gizmodo. She’s been doing keyboard reviews for years, and helped me figure out exactly what to do for this one (within my limited knowledge of such things) and how to test everything out. What Ion also told me was that mass-produced custom keyboards have led to a decline in quality for fandom die-hards. When the hobby was smaller and the barrier for entry higher, custom keycaps had to be crowdfunded via a mass preorder/buy-in, but this mean that the keycaps produced were of a much higher quality. While these keycaps are clearly of a perfectly fine quality, the thematic clarity of them is not expressed well. DROP hasn’t let their production slip, but the fact is that this keyboard is—at least to me as a die-hard language lover—aesthetically incorrect.

How could you fix it? There is an issue of space, the main Tengwar alphabet includes twenty-four letters, plus an additional eight symbols for more nuanced diphthongs and distinctions that only a man like Tolkien would feel the need to identify within an alphabet. As an example, the difference between the “n” in nigh and the “nj” in new is reflected in Tengwar, with n as in nigh represented by the numen letter, and nj as ñoldo. However, it’s worth noting that numen and the ñoldo are literally reversed characters, so feasibly these two could have been illustrated on a single keycap. There are plenty of these that are identifiable if one had just taken the time to go through and line up a few key similarities. If this was truly meant to be a usable Tengwar keyboard, there are options for space-saving within the keyspace provided, especially considering that there are some punctuations that English uses that have never been recorded in Sindarin or Quenya.

So what I have is a phenomenal little keyboard that is delightful to use and cute to have on my desk, but if I were to attempt to transliterate anything from English into its phonetic match in Sindarin, I would have to go through a whole song and dance to attempt to find the temar and teyeller, attempt to use a chart to find the correct glyph on my keyboard, and then figure out whatever English letter in any given font corresponds to the Tengwar I’ve found on my chart, rather than just referencing my keyboard itself. I would be better served creating a glyph map on my own that corresponds to this setup rather than attempt to go through three layers of translation.

I’m so sorry that I’m like this, I really am. I just wanted a transliteral Elvish keyboard, and what I have is an expressed thesis of Tolkien’s constructed Elvish languages. I know it’s simply the easiest solution done well, but there is a part of me that remains annoyed. There is a version of this keyboard that might exist in another timeline that is innovative and clever, utilizing both the Tengwar and Latin glyphs to create a usable Elvish keyboard that you could use to write in Sindarin, should you have the alt/command control to adjust the vowels or indicate whether you wanted the numen-n or the ñoldo-n. We could have had it all.

I do really love this packaging, it’s quite charming.

I do really love this packaging, it’s quite charming.
Photo: io9 | Linda Codega

I mentioned that this keyboard comes in Dwarvish—or Khudzul, if you’re being Tolkien about it—and I regret to inform you at first glance that it does not appear as if the Cirth letters line up with any approximate latinate transliteration either. But Khudzul does have 50 Cirth, so the phonetics might have been a little trickery. I won’t get into a breakdown of the Kudzul keyboard here, as I’ve already gone wildly obsessive enough.

Essentially, this cute little clicky-clacky mechanical keyboard is great for anyone who desires the Elvish aesthetic, with no way to use the keyboard efficiently to imitate Sindarin, either in translation or transliteration. The salt in the wound is the Sindarin printed on the translated keycaps like home, end, delete, and insert. I didn’t go through all of them, but I picked out some that showed the breadth of their rightness and wrongness. The Sindarin word bâr for is used for home, which is correct. However, they printed the Sindarin word meth on the end keycap, which is incorrect because meth is a noun and not a verb! The Sindarin verb for end is a transitive prefix tel- or something like metta, which is translated closer to ‘ending’. Another example is the insert key which reads, in Sindarin ‘nest’ but whose Sindarin letters correlate to no Sindarin word, as far as I can tell. So it seems like we have some correct words, some incorrect forms, and some keycaps that just have a phonetic substitution.

It is, however, pretty well made (I did notice a little bit of separation between the metal chassis and the cover, but it’s minor), and has a bunch of cute additions in different colors and fun designs. I received the standard version (with both the Latin and the Tengwar legends) but I’ve requested the hardcore version to see if I can program this keyboard to write in a transliterative Sindarin–we’ll see when that gets here. But ultimately, this Elvish version of the Drop ENTR keyboard is nice. I like it, I’m going to keep using it. It does what it’s supposed to do. It’s a great starter keyboard for a newbie like me, but I weep for the keyboard I could have had.

Various Lord of the Rings keyboards, including Elvish, Dwarvish, and Black Tongue (Quenya but worse) are available from DROP.

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