[type] Shavian, An Alternative English Alphabet

2320.I’ve been doing a great deal of reading about shorthand scripts, and have found out a great deal about them. The biggest revelation is that shorthand, to work, has to – to some degree – abandon the alphabetic sytem of writing in favor of phonetic symbols.

What that means, of course, is that each glyph, character, or symbol might represent a sound instead of a letter with which you construct them. Gregg shorthand is, in my opinion, a very good illustrative example of this. When you write via Gregg, you put what you hear through two filters; the first discriminates the sounds, the second maps them to squiggly glyphs representing phonetic atoms rather than decodes them into the letter combinations which create the sounds. Speed is gained by efficiency in writing; the sound-based glyphs and brief forms dash down an entire word in a squiggle, loop, and dot.

Phonetic sounds are not just the province of the shorthand writer, however. Something that seems to fit between the glyphic discreteness of Latinate script and the squiggles of pure shorthand is something called the Shavian alphabet. This system, developed in the late 1950s-early 1960s, depends on new glyph forms having little if anything to do with the 26-character Latin alphabet we all know intimately. Moreover, each letterform maps to an individual English sound.

The legend seems to have it that, in his will, the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw left a monetary prize to be granted to the person who developed a phonetic alphabetic system for the writing of English that, since it was to depend on sounds rather than letters, would be a more efficient and economic way to write English and, since it was based on sounds, easier for the English learner to pick up the language. Originally it was to be developed by Sir Isaac Pitman, developer of the Pitman Shorthand system, but due to disuptes the Trustee opened it up to a worldwide competition. This was won by a Ronald Kingsley Read, who developed the first Shavian alphabet and was appointed its sole designer.

The Shavian alphabet is characterized by an inherent sense of order and logic. This (source) is the system that Kingsley Read developed and is known as the original Shavian script:

The Shavian alphabet comes in three basic types and a fourth auxiliary type. The first two types cover the consonants, and are called Tall (for unvoiced consonants) and Deep (for voiced consonants). The third time are Short letters, and cover the vowel sounds. The Compound (called “ah”, “awe”, “are”, “or”, “air”, “err”, “array”, “ear”, “ian”, and “yew”) are blends of two short sounds (except that last one there), and provide for what they call “rhotic” speakers, that is, those dialects that voice the “r” in the word “hard”, for a fast example.

The eye will probably pick up right away that the Deep letters are 180-degree rotation of the Tall letters, and the short letters have mostly graphically reflective pairs. These sounds (with a few exceptions) are the voice-unvoiced versions of the same sound. Note also the pairs of tick marks between the letter pairs: they are all the height of a Short letter, or, as a typographer might say, “x-height”. The graphical definition of a Tall letter is one which starts on the baseline and goes to ascender height; the graphical definition of a Deep letter is one which goes to the descender.

The real fun of Shavian (anything having to do with the playwright Shaw was called Shavian) is that, even though it’s sounding out English, it looks so delightfully extraterrastrial. From Omniglot, here’s the text of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

The translation of which is:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Another thing about Shavian which is a great deal of fun is the letter names. You might have noticed that, in the letter list, a word typifing the sound made by each letter is displayed. That is the actual name of the letter. Reciting Shavian would go Peep, bib, tot, dead, kick, gig, fee, vow … all the way through to ian, yew.
That makes me feel kind of antic inside, in the good way.

The apparent hope of Shaw was that a library of publications would obtain after his death but challenges to the will assured that only one mass-market Shaw script publication would ever happen: A Shavian-Latin edition of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. But there is some interest in Shavian and it’s infected me a little; I’d like to learn this along with any other shorthand system I take up – which will most likely be an attempt at Gregg.

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2 Responses to “[type] Shavian, An Alternative English Alphabet”

  1. What fun! I have never encountered this before.

  2. Yeh. I'm not sure what I like more – the alphabet or the story behind it.

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