Choice of Letters.

THE object of an alphabet being to represent to the eye the sounds of a language by means of written symbols, it follows that in a rational alphabet -
(1) Every simple sound must have a distinct symbol, and
(2) There must be a definite relation between each sound and its symbol.

These principles are carried out in Mr. Bell's "Visible Speech." In this alphabet each letter symbolises the action of the vocal organs by which it is formed, according to certain fixed principles. Thus, all consonants are symbolised by a curve, like a c, which is turned in different directions to indicate the place in the mouth where each consonant is formed. , for instance, indicates any consonant formed by the point of the tongue, such as t, d, or l; , one formed by the lips, such as p, b, or m. The different varieties of "point-", "lip-", &c. consonants are indicated by modifiers added to these fundamental symbols. A short straight line inside the curve converts voiceless (surd) consonants, such as t, p, s into the corresponding voiced (sonant) consonants d, b, z, &c. A bar across the opening if the curve denotes a "shut" consonant or mute. So that any one who knows the symbols for t and d is at once able to recognize the symbol b if he knows that of p.

Such an alphabet is, to a great extent, self-interpreting. When the meaning of a few radical signs have been learnt, hundreds of letters are understood at once, without further explanation. It is also a universal alphabet, providing symbols not only for all existing, but also for all possible sounds.

The Roman alphabet, with which English and most other European languages are written, evidently falls far short of this standard. In the first place, its letters are formed quite arbitrarily, and bear no definite relation to the sounds they indicate. No one would infer, for instance, from the shape of the letters that d was nearly related to t, and that there was the same relation between b and p. Again, the Roman alphabet supplies an utterly inadequate number of symbols for the sounds of most languages. Although the original alphabet has been supplemented in modern times by the addition of such letters as j, v, and w, it is still very defective, and consequently distinct sounds are often confounded under one letter in many languages. The difficulty of learning the values of the different letters is also much increased by the use of capitals and italics, many of which, especially the capitals, have entirely distinct forms. Compare A, a, a, G, g, &c. Besides being inadequate for the representation of the sounds of each individual language, the Roman alphabet has also lost to a great extent its universal and international character, the same letters being employed to signify totally distinct sounds in different languages. Compare ch in the English church with the French chat, the German ach, &c. Even in a single language one letter or letter-group often indicates a variety of distinct sounds. This is carried to such a pitch in English, that our alphabet really consists not of twenty-five letters (not including the divergent shapes of the capitals) but of more than two hundred letters and letter-groups, all of which have to be learnt separately. With a rational alphabet like Visible Speech all this confusion is impossible; for the connection between each sound and its symbol is so intimate that the one can never be separated from the other, as in the Roman alphabet, where the association of sound and symbol is arbitrary and purely traditional. If Visible Speech were as perfect in its practical details as in its general theory, the only adequate solution of the question of spelling reform would evidently be to adopt it instead of the Roman alphabet. Unfortunately, however, Visible Speech is dependent upon our knowledge of the formation of sounds, and until our knowledge is perfect, which it is as yet far from being, we have no guarantee that further discoveries may not oblige us to modify the details of our symbolisation. Until then Visible Speech must continue to be a purely scientific alphabet, which cannot be brought into general use till it is firmly based on a perfect and complete system of phonetic analysis, and has been tested thoroughly in practice.

The Roman alphabet, on the other hand, is quite independent of the scientific analysis of sounds. It has also been thoroughly tested in practice. Long experience and many experiments have selected the most legible and distinct types, and a script alphabet of the most practical character has been formed. In fact the difficulty of our present English spelling lies not so much in any of the inherent defects of the Roman alphabet as in our irrational use of it.

The immediate practical question of Spelling Reform resolves itself therefore into this - By what arrangement of the existing alphabet can the sounds of the English language be best represented?

The imperfections of the Roman alphabet may be remedied in various ways, but the fundamental consideration is whether to confine ourselves to the existing letters or to form new ones. The objections to the second alternative are evident. New types are costly; they disturb and complicate the existing founts; and there is often a difficulty in providing suitable script forms. If, on the other hand, we keep to the old types, we can reform our orthography without expense or disturbance of the existing machinery of the printing-offices, and what is of extreme importance, we are provided with a script alphabet of a thoroughly practical character. The practical experience of Mr. Ellis is important on this point. After expending much time and money in elaborating a new-type alphabet - the "phonotypy" of Mr. Pitman - he has entirely abandoned the new-type principle as impracticable. He excludes even letters with accents and diacritics, which, being only cast for a few founts, act practically as new letters.

If then we exclude new letters as impracticable, we are obliged to fall back on digraphs, which are already largely employed in English and most other languages. The obvious objection to them is that they violate the natural principle of denoting every simple sound by a simple sign. In a rational alphabet such as Visible Speech, this principle is carried out consistently, the consonants of she and the, for instance, being denoted by single letters just as that of see is. But with the Roman alphabet, which does not claim to be rational and consistent, this principle cannot be carried out: our business is to make the best use of the materials we have, and if we can make a convenient and unambiguous symbol for a simple sound by joining two letters together, we are clearly right in doing so. In fact we may consider the h in sh and th simply as a diacritic written for convenience on a line with the letter it modifies. It would be possible to write and print the h above the s and t, or to make some kind of tag, but the expense of casting new types and trouble of writing the new letters would not be repaid by any gain of ease or certainty in reading.

There is, however, one simple method of forming new letters without casting new types, which is very often convenient. This is by turning the letters, thus - . These new letters are perfectly distinct in shape, and are easily written. The was first employed by Schmeller to denote the obscure e-sound in the German gabe, &c. Mr. Ellis, in his "Palæotype," uses it to denote the allied English sound in but.

A great improvement would be to do away with capitals entirely. They greatly add to the difficulty of learning the alphabet, have a disfiguring and incongruous effect among the lower-case letters, and serve no useful purpose whatever. Proper names are always recognised in speech by the context, and do not require to be marked in writing either, whose exclusive function is to give a faithful representation of the sounds of language. Whenever general distinctions are required, they can be indicated by the use of a larger or smaller fount, or by thick (Clarendon) or thin type. We thus arrive at the general conclusion that a reformed alphabet must consist of the existing lower-case types, supplemented by digraphs, and, if necessary, by turned letters.

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James Chandler 1998.