GBS on the ABCs

November 22: On this day in 1962, George Bernard Shaw's bi-alphabetic version of Androcles and the Lion was published in England, as directed by the terms of his will. For his last half-century Shaw had argued that the irrational spelling and pronunciation of the English language caused not only semi-literacy but a great loss of time and money. He was far from alone in his crusade for an alternative, but Shaw's reputation for tilting at monuments put him in the vanguard—where he was happiest, of course, but as described here by biographer Michael Holroyd, where he was an easy mark for all the other newspell fanatics:

Unharnessed languages rushed in at him from everywhere and he beat them off with volleys of withering advice on blue printed postcards. . . . But still they came at him, the champions of Basic English and Simplified Spelling, knights of Interglossa and Esperanto, Novial and Volapük, ancient lords of Visible Speech, irascible young linguists, strange panoptic conjugators, calligraphers, mathematical symbolists, firers of pistics, shorthanders, Pidgin fanciers. He spread his dramatic skills and left them all for dead.

Having found no system worth promoting, and getting on in years, Shaw created a trust in his will to develop a clear "fonetic alfabet" and a book to promote it, then handed the mission to James Pitman, grandson of the shorthand Pitman. After twelve years of competitions, refinements, and lawsuits, 50,000 copies of Androcles and the Lion were made available, each readable in both alphabet and alfabet. Those hopeful of learning the new, faster, easier, more logical system were provided with guide cards and keys and the instruction to "Open the book and hold it upside down in front of the mirror.... Keep the back of the book pressed against your lips, and advance toward the mirror until you are able to see the individual characters clearly enough to be able to copy them...."

 

Shaw's money for the fonetic revolution finally ran out in 1997, though some continue to promote his creation, or to lionize a revised version of it. In his recent Spellbound: The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling, James Essinger discusses such efforts, arriving at a conclusion which seems clear in any language: "Those would-be reformers who have suggested replacing English letters with a new alphabet seem to me, frankly, completely bananas."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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