February 22, 2018

GBS on the ABCs

On this day in 1962 a bi-alphabetic version of George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion was published in England, as directed by the terms of Shaw's 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 most happy, of course, but as described here by biographer Michael Holroyd, where he was an easy target:
    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 Volap√ľk, 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 being as impervious to public ridicule as ever, Shaw created a trust in his will to develop a clear "fonetic alfabet" and a book to promote it, then abandoned the field to James Pitman, grandson of the shorthand Pitman: "You have no enemies and a great phonetic name. My name is well known; but it raises clouds of savage prejudices; and I am too old, too old."

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 all this finally ran out in 1997, though many continue to promote his creation, or to design fonts for it, or to lionize a revised, even better system.

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