November 23

It’s not often that a contemporary typographer has the opportunity to practice paleontology and to experience the excitement enjoyed by the first translators of the Rosetta Stone. It was therefore with a spirit of adventure that our compositor picked up a copy of a fifty-cent Penguin book on this day in 1962, having read that just two days before, Androcles and the Lion had been published, in accordance with the directions set forth in the will of the playwright, George Bernard Shaw. What was unique about this edition was that it was composed in the Shavian characters which had been selected as the winning design in a competition for the creation of a phonetic alphabet. Shaw had directed that a large part of the income from his estate should be set aside for the development of such an alphabet “to be written without indicating single sounds by groups of letters or by diacritical marks.”

The iconoclastic playwright spent a good part of his extremely long life talking and writing about the inconsistencies of English grammar, pronunciation, and spelling. He desired reform, and to round out the whole thing, he also wanted to have an alphabet which would be more condensed. He wrote, “To get such common words as son and science phonetically defined was hopeless. In what is called the Oxford accent son and sun become san; sawed and sword are pronounced alike, and my native city becomes Dablin. In Dublin itself I have heard it called Dawblin. The Oxford pronunciation of science is sah-yence: the Irish pronunciation is su-yence. Shakespeare pronounced wind as wined; and as late as the end of the 18th century an attempt to correct an actor who pronounced it in this way provoked the retort. ‘I cannot finned it in my minned to call it winned.’ ”

The alphabet selected by England’s Public Trustee was designed by Kingsley Read. The forty-eight characters of Read’s alphabet were cut into a type by the Monotype Corporation of London in a 13-point size. When composed into pages in Androcles they make up about two-thirds of the facing page set in the conventional characters of 12-point Imprint. The saving of space is therefore not as economical as might be desired, particularly when the reader is expected to make the effort to learn to read phonetic characters.

Concerning the eventual acceptance of a phonetic alphabet, Shaw was more or less resigned to the recognition of the difficulties to be encountered. “The only danger I can see,” he wrote, “. . . is the danger of civil war. Our present spelling is incapable of indicating the sounds of our words and does not pretend to; but the new spelling would prescribe an official pronunciation. Nobody at present calls a lam a lamb or pronounces wawk and tawk as walk and talk. But when the pronunciation can be and is indicated, the disputable points will be strong enough for the stupidest person to understand and fight about. And the ferocity with which people fight about words is astonishing. . . . Still we must take that risk. If the introduction of an English alphabet for the English language costs a civil war, or even, as the introduction of summer time did, a world war, I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing. This must be remedied, come what may.”

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