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A dead key is a special kind of a modifier key on a typewriter or computer keyboard that is typically used to attach a specific diacritic to a base letter. The dead key does not generate a (complete) character by itself but modifies the character generated by the key struck immediately after. Thus, a dedicated key is not needed for each possible combination of a diacritic and a letter, but rather only one dead key for each diacritic is needed, in addition to the normal base letter keys.
For example, if a keyboard has a dead key for the grave accent (`), the French character à can be generated by first pressing ` and then A, whereas è can be generated by first pressing ` and then E. Usually, the diacritic in an isolated form can be generated with the dead key followed by space, so a plain grave accent can be typed by pressing ` and then Space.
A dead key is different from a typical modifier key (such as AltGr or ⌥ Option) in that, rather than being pressed and held while another key is struck, the dead key is pressed and released before striking the key to be modified. In some computer systems, there is no indication to the user that a dead key has been struck, so the key appears dead, but in some text-entry systems the diacritic is displayed along with an indication that the system is waiting for another keystroke to complete the typing sequence.
On a typewriter, the character modifier functionality is accomplished mechanically by striking the diacritical mark without advancing the carriage (in modern terms, that diacritical mark keys are non-spacing). Thus, the following letter will strike the same spot on the paper. By construction, this has no restrictions on a typewriter, so one could place an acute accent (
´) on a q, for example.
Computers do not, however, work this way. On a computer, the dead key temporarily changes the mapping of the keyboard for the next keystroke, so it activates a special keyboard mode rather than generates a modifier character. Instead of the normal letter, a precomposed variant of it with the appropriate diacritic is generated. Each combination of a diacritic and a base letter must be specified in the character set and supported by the font in use. As there is no precomposed character to combine the acute accent with the letter q, striking ´ and then q is likely to result in ´q, with the accent and letter as separate characters, or in some systems the invalid typing sequence may be discarded. (Using the combining characters available in the Unicode character set, it may be possible to generate a combination that more or less looks like a q with an acute accent – q́ – but this is a technique quite distinct from the dead key functionality.)
Dead keys on various keyboard layouts
A key may function as a dead key by default, and many non-English keyboard layouts in particular have dead keys directly on the keyboard. The basic US keyboard does not have any dead keys, but the US-International keyboard layout, available on Windows and the X Window System, places some dead keys directly on similar-looking punctuation marks. Old computer systems, such as the MSX, often had a special key labeled dead key, which in combination with the Ctrl and Shift keys could be used to add some of the diacritics commonly needed in the Western European languages (
¨) to vowels that were typed subsequently.
In the absence of a default dead key, even a normal printing key can temporarily be altered to function as a dead key by simultaneously holding down another modifier key (typically AltGr or Option). In Microsoft Word, using the Control key with a key that usually resembles the diacritic (e.g.
^ for a circumflex) acts as a dead key.
On the Macintosh, many keyboard layouts employ dead keys. In the U.S. layout, the following selection of dead keys appears:
- ⌥ Option+e → á, é, í, ó, ú
- ⌥ Option+` → à, è, ì, ò, ù
- ⌥ Option+u → ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, ÿ
- ⌥ Option+i → â, ê, î, ô, û
- ⌥ Option+n → ã, õ, ñ
For example, when ⌥ Option+E are first pressed simultaneously and then followed by A, the result is á. On a Macintosh, pressing one of these Option-key combinations creates the accent and highlights it, then the final character appears when the key for the base character is pressed. However, some diacritically-marked Latin letters less common in the Western European languages, such as ŵ (used in Welsh) or š (used in many Eastern European languages), cannot be typed with the U.S. layout, which predates Unicode and only provides access to characters found in the legacy Mac Roman character set. Access to many more diacritics is provided by the U.S. Extended keyboard layout.
In AmigaOS, dead keys are generated by pressing Alt in combination with F (acute), G (grave), H (circumflex), J (tilde) or K (trema) (e.g., the
ALT-F combination followed by the
a key generates á and
ALT-F followed by
e generates é, whereas
ALT-G followed by
a generates à and
ALT-G followed by
e generates è).
- Commodore-Amiga, Inc. AMIGA ROM Kernel Reference Manual LIBRARIES. Addison-Wesley. pp. 823–827. ISBN 0-201-56774-1.