[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 p25-30]
[See other articles about the Shaw alfabet]

Graphology and Writing Systems: the case of the Shaw Alphabet.

Alice Coleman, King's College London.

1. The Shaw Alphabet Competition.

George Bernard Shaw was critical of the illogicalities of written English, not only of the vagaries of spelling but also of the time needed to write necessary letters as well as unnecessary ones. He wrote his plays in Pitman's shorthand and left money in his will for the development and publication of a "proposed new alphabet" with the following attributes.

There were to be at least forty letters to enable "the said language to be written without indicating single sounds by groups of letters or by diacritical marks". One sound, one symbol.

The new symbols were to be streamlined, both to occupy less space than traditional orthography and also to reduce the time taken to write them. They were to be simple and easy to write, with a distinctness and legibility that would increase the speed of reading.

The search was to be conducted by the Public Trustee who, at the end of 1957, announced a competition for the design of a new alphabet to comply with the provisions of Shaw's will. During 1958 some 450 entries were received from all over the world, but no design was considered sufficiently outstanding to win outright. The best was by Mr. Kingsley Read, but amendments to it were made with the help of three other contestants, Mrs. Pauline M. Barrett, of Canada, Mr. J. F. Magrath and Dr. S. L. Pugmire. All four shared the prize money equally.

Fig. 1 The Shaw Alphabet Reading Key

The Shaw Alphabet Reading Key.
The Shaw Alphabet consisted of 48 symbols arranged in pairs to facilitate learning. For example, there were eight unvoiced consonants each matched by its voiced equivalent which used the same symbols rotated through 180 degrees. The former were described as tall letters, using ascenders from the middle zone into the upper zone, and the latter as deep letters, using descenders from the middle into the lower zone. The sounds of /j/ (Y) and /w/, and /ŋ/ (NG) and /h/ were also represented by bizonal symbol pairs. There were no trizonal letters.

Of the 28 letters remaining, 20 were described as short, i.e. confined to the middle zone. Four were pairs of consonants, L, R, and M, N, represented by pairs of mirror image symbols. The rest are vowels, paired off in a variety of logical associations.

The last group of eight letters are described as compound. Six were triphthongs with the final R (or schwa) sound represented by the shape of a closing round bracket. The last sound 'yew' was a bizonal combination of the symbols for Y and /u:/.

Fig. 2. The Shaw Alphabet for Writers.

The Shaw Alphabet for Writers
The copyright of the Shaw Alphabet was made public property, to encourage people to use it. Two versions of the key were published on the two sides of a 'bookmark', both reproduced here, together with a page from Androcles and the Lion, which Shaw directed should be published with the existing alphabet in parallel with a transliteration into the new one.

The Shaw Alphabet is undoubtedly ingenious. No symbol takes as long to write as its equivalent in traditional orthography, and it was estimated that speeds of 60 to 100 words a minute could be attained. Writing would be 80 to 100% faster and reading 50-75% faster. Even these immense gains could be exceeded by using single letters for the most common words in the English language, the, of, and, to, which together account for 17% of words, on average.

Another advantage is space saving. The Shaw Alphabet occupies about 36 per cent less page-area than the traditional equivalent, with a corresponding economy in paper, ink, etc. Further savings are suggested in the form of one or two letters for 18 other commonly encountered words.

Nevertheless, the Shaw Alphabet did not catch on. Although as a competition entrant I was keenly interested in the outcome, I did not encounter any lively discussion of it in university circles and my own reaction was disappointment that its radical departure from traditional orthography made it a non-starter. It seemed important to have a new system sufficiently like the old one to make its acquisition fairly effortless, and ensure that future generations trained in it would not be cut from all the wealth of earlier written and printed material. It also seemed important not to divorce ourselves from other languages using the Roman alphabet. The impact on graphology did not, at that time, so much as cross my mind, but in the light of hindsight it appears that the effect would have been disastrous. This seems worth exploring.

Extract from 'Androcles and the Lion'.

Extract from 'Androcles and the Lion.

2. What Is Graphology?

Graphology is the science of interpreting character from handwriting. Early medical observers noted how various brain injuries created specific changes in both personality and writing, and German physiologists proved, a century ago, that the brain and not the hand is the main influence in handwriting's individuality. However, illness and injury leave their mark, and today German doctors are leaders in research into the diagnostic clues to cancer and heart disease that appear in handwriting before serious clinical symptoms emerge, thus facilitating early treatment. In California, W. N. Knowles has devised a graphological method of diagnosing Alzheimer's disease to the same level of accuracy as vastly more expensive medical tests, and other research programmes are in train.

Non-medical graphology developed in mid-19th-century France, where the Abbé Michon studied 40,000 handwriting samples and laid the foundations for discerning abilities, aptitudes and personality traits. To-day, 75% of French firms use graphology as an aid to staff recruitment (Peugeot, 1995), and it is widely applied across Europe. In North America Milton Bunker added copiously to its repertoire, and it is now taking root in Russia, China, and Japan. It has become a university subject in Italy, New York and Beijing, and is accepted as character evidence in the law courts of Switzerland and Israel.

In the United Kingdom graphology has been disparaged as a superstition, not least by the purveyors of psychometric tests, who fear that its at least equal accuracy and its substantially lower cost will make it a formidable competitor. It is also less biased than psychometric tests, which the EU rejected in 1994 as not being culture-free. British graphology is now increasing exponentially for staff selection, team building, career counselling, social work with teenagers and a range of other uses.

3. Graphology and Spelling Reform.

What is the relationship between graphology and spelling reform?

Graphology is a fairly robust subject. The same meanings emerge from the same penstrokes, even when those strokes are embedded in totally different types of script such as Arabic or Chinese. Cut Spelling's omission of redundant letters would not circumscribe graphology at all, but two other kinds of change could be potentially harmful.

The first would be the total omission of certain graphologically significant strokes, such as C, the circle form open to the right. If C were dispensed with in favour of K and S, a dozen or so important interpretations would be lost. One of these, for example, is the C formation that indicates 'emotional pain', a rare stroke which reveals a writer who has been so constrained and restricted that s/he has suppressed the capacity for feeling and is prepared to retaliate hurtfully against even completely innocent people. This is a vital warning sign which needs to be incorporated in C if it is to be distinguishable from bad temper in general. Spelling reform could avoid this loss if it transferred the redundant C to represent the sound of CH.

Second, spelling reform could be harmful if it introduced the wrong kind of new letter symbol. Back in 1908, the French psychiatrist Bérillon recognised that the link from character to brain to hand to writing is a two-way process. If there is a constant feedback of either good or bad written forms, there is a gradual orientation of the personality in correspondingly good or bad directions. For example, encouraging children to discipline their handwriting can help them to discipline their behaviour also. This discovery led to the establishment of graphotherapy, which can be used to help people give up their addictions, relax writer's or artist's block, assist golfers to improve their stroke, and so on. It cannot be used indiscriminately, as some aspects of writing style reflect such fundamental parts of an individual's character that asking for a change would be mentally disturbing instead of therapeutic.

It is therefore desirable that spelling reformers seeking to introduce new letter forms should check with a graphologist to ensure that their proposals will not encourage harmful tendencies.

It is in this context that the effect of the Shaw alphabet is explored here. The school of graphology used as a yardstick for comparison is PACE (Personality and Character Evaluation) directed by Ness Shirley and Alice Coleman.

4 Diacritics.

Shaw specifically wished to avoid the use of diacritics for diversifying existing letters into extra forms, but the Shaw Alphabet goes further and omits diacritics altogether. It dispenses entirely with the existing i-dots and t-bars, which are important graphological indicators. The PACE Graphology correspondence course devotes a whole lesson to diacritics, covering over 70 traits of character and personality. If these were wiped clean out of the graphological repertoire, it would be a severe handicap. A minority of the data might be retrievable from the punctuation and the dot which it is prescribed that the Shaw Alphabet should use as a 'namer', placed in front of initial letters that would formerly have been capitalised, but t-bar data would be irredeemably lost.

5. Initial or Final Strokes.

A second set of information lost by the Shaw Alphabet would be those beginning and end strokes which are explained in the second lesson of the PACE course. Again, a whole book of graphological lore would be eliminated - nearly 70 traits. It would no longer be possible to interpret intentions and follow-through.

6 Connectives

The Shaw Alphabet was designed as a print set of separate letters, with no connecting strokes between them. In some cases one letter would end just before the point where the next one was to begin and the two could be joined if desired, but this would be a junction, not a connective. It would be permitted only at the exact level of the baseline or of the mental reality line (the upper and lower limits of the middle zone) and never above, between or below these levels. The link would be a mere absence of space, with no length, depth, shape, direction or position of its own. This rule would eliminate not only the many traits revealed by connectives within the middle zone but also upper and lower zone strokes such as those denoting obstinacy, deliberateness, fantasy or sublimation of energy into scientific or humane endeavours. Furthermore, there would no longer be a reliable way to differentiate left-brain logical thinking from right-brain pattern thinking. All this would nullify another large tranche of graphology.

7. Circle Letters.

Our present rich variety of circle letters would be greatly impoverished. Only one true circle would be retained, to represent the long O, but as it would never occur in compounds such AS OI, OR, OU, OUR, OUS, SION, or TION, it would be a rare occurrence, unable to yield proper percentages for the large range of communication characteristics discernible at present. Circles are included in the two Shaw letters devoted to the voiced and unvoiced variants of TH, but only the first of these would give information on talkativeness or reticence, according to whether it is fully closed or left with a gap at the top. If the second variant were left unclosed, the gap would be located on the baseline, where it would betoken laxity, meaning a weak character who might be easily led into dishonesty.

There are seven quarter-circle signs, five half-circles and six three-quarter circles, of which four have the basal gap of laxity. There are also two double arcs of insincerity. In our present alphabet the laxity and insincerity signs are optional, used only by lax and insincere people, but the Shaw Alphabet would compel everyone to use them. In view of graphotherapy's doctrine that 'you tend to become what you write', this bodes ill for a Shaw-Alphabet society. The change would not only deprive graphology of a substantial part of its subject matter, but would also tend to create cultural damage in society at large.

8. Loops.

The Shaw Alphabet has only one upper-zone and one lower-zone loop as compared with the traditional alphabet's possible seven in each zone. It would still be possible to observe abstract imagination, material imagination and the degree of desire for variety, but as their frequencies would be very low, it would be difficult to find enough cases to build up a quantitative picture of variations within each of these three traits. There would be no scope whatsoever for assessing the qualities specifically discernible from D and T loops: dignity, sensitivity, and mild or marked over-sensitiveness. Nor would it be possible to detect any of the numerous traits now reflected in the height and form of lower-zone loops, such as clannishness, a distorted view of the self, latent sexuality, self-punishment or the house-tyrant syndrome.

9. Middle-Zone Thinking Letters.

The extreme economy of strokes in the Shaw Alphabet leaves little scope for the varied top and bottom forms of the middle-zone thinking letters. Practical thinking with manual dexterity, keen comprehension, cunning, worry, repression, thinking with imagination and a liking for one-to-one communication are ruled out. It is possible that methodical thinking may be deducible from the symbols for ZH, J, AR, AIR, and the short ER, information-seeking from the long OO, analytical ability from the short OO, and effortless thinking from CH, SH, OR, and the long ERR. In the place of the present simplicity of deriving 13 modes of thinking from just three similar letters H, M and N, there would be only a restricted set of four to be sought from a complex of twelve. The valuable overview of balance in varied thinking patterns would be lost, and quantitative precision impaired for information-seeking, analytical ability and their compound, problem-solving ability.

10. Tics.

In the existing alphabet, temper tics and aggressive tics are not built in but added as extras by people of the relevant dispositions. In the Shaw Alphabet, there is a temper tic built in to the T and CH and an aggressiveness tick built into the D and J. Like the built-in signs for laxity and insincerity, these tics could be negative graphotherapy training in the development of disagreeable characteristics, and help reinforce the present trend towards a more violent society.

11 Pressure

The Shaw Alphabet came with Kingsley Read's prescription on pressure: "Avoid cramped fingers and heavy pressure. Only with a light touch will you write well, freely and fast". This is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of pressure. It is not within the writer's power to choose. Energetic people naturally write with a heavier hand, and this particular line of evidence would continue to exist.

12. The Ductus.

Kingsley Read also advised the use of a fairly thin ink trail (ductus), as he believed a broad one would blur some of the fine distinctions between letters of similar shape. This would be a serious loss, as ductus width provides a great deal of information on people's preferred lifestyles. Writers would be most reluctant to give up the type of pen they feel most comfortable with, so in practice ductus information would probably not be lost.

13. Slant.

Another prescription of Kingsley Read's referred to slant: "Cultivate an upright rather than a sloping handwriting. It will be more like printed letterpress and more distinguishable". The reason he gave was that certain letters, SH, CH, ZH, J, Y, W, AH, AWE, both forms of TH and 'yew' have a built-in slant, which would have lost its distinctiveness if there had been no vertical standard to judge them by. The varying slants inherent in the Shaw Alphabet give the same sort of visual impression to a Shaw text as the variations that denote immaturity when seen in traditional writing, so immaturity is another trait that could not be graphologically discerned if the alphabet were changed. There are also varying slants in the Shaw middle-zone, but some of them are part circles, and as we are used to circles in this zone, they do not give the same every-which-way impression as the letters mentioned.

In practice, it seems highly unlikely that the advice for a vertical slant would be heeded. Slant, like pressure, is a highly individual imperative, and therefore one of the things that graphotherapists would not try to change, because to do so could cause mental stress.

14. Size.

Like pressure and slant, writing size is not a matter for choice or conscious control, but is a fundamental expression of personality. Kingsley Read suggested enlarging one's writing during the initial practice stage and more permanently if needed to offset the tendency of a thick ductus to create confusion between certain letters. More basically, he advocated that the upper and middle zone should both equal the middle zone, thereby achieving a nice balance. In practice, however, writers settle down to their own zonal proportions. Today's children may reduce the letter t down to middle-zone height, but it is still recognisable as a T because of its distinctive bar. The same would not be true of the s-shaped S and Z of the Shaw Alphabet, which if compressed into the middle zone could become indistinguishable from the s-shaped letters M and N.

15. Confusion Between Similar Letters.

Deviations from a prescribed copybook are the breath of graphological life, and the present 26 letters are sufficiently distinctive to be able to absorb a great deal of variation before becoming illegible. If the one-letter-one-sound principle had been implemented by keeping traditional letters and adding a new range of distinctive forms for the extra sounds, the new alphabet would have retained a high degree of resistance to illegibility. The Shaw Alphabet, by contrast, used such simplified forms that many of them are closely similar. Kingsley Read picks out no fewer than 15 which could easily be confused with others unless written very precisely, and this means that the Shaw Alphabet would have a very low resistance to illegibility.

16. Spacing.

Graphology uses five kinds of spacing: letter breadth, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing and margins. The last three and to some extent the second one, would remain operational in the Shaw Alphabet but the first, letter breadth, would be more affected. Half its letters are so linear in nature that breadth measurement would be impossible. The others would probably suffice, however.

17. Dyslexia.

At the time the Shaw Alphabet was produced, dyslexia appeared to be a rare condition, almost always resulting from brain damage. Genetically it was present in many other cases but did not manifest itself as a problem because the phonic method of teaching children to read, which was then in vogue, helped dyslexics to escape becoming 'word-blind'. In recent decades word-blindness has become much more common, owing to the mass change from phonics to the look-say, whole-world method. Dyslexics, and many others, cannot benefit from look-say, and it is now estimated that some seven million Britons have passed through their whole school career to become adult illiterates. Some very bright dyslexics have learned enough to achieve university entrance, but are still plagued by severe spelling difficulties that continue to blight their lives.

Phonics teaches the shapes and sounds of individual letters and then merges them to become words, and this suits dyslexics far better than look-say which does not even teach the alphabet. The Shaw Alphabet, with its one-to-one sound symbol correspondence, would seem, therefore, to be especially well suited to them. However, this advantage would have been more than offset by several severe disadvantages. Dyslexics need very distinct shapes. They are confused by the same shape occurring in different positions, and even if taught phonically, take time to master the mirror-image letters b and d. The Shaw Alphabet is full of similar shapes that would be confusing to a dyslexic, e.g. B, F, P and U are represented by the same form in different positions.

These problems would have existed even if the Shaw Alphabet had been taught phonically and would have been far worse if it had been subverted to the look-say steamroller of progressive education. This dogma has been able to ban the teaching of the traditional alphabet, and to take away the ground from under the successful initial teaching alphabet. It would certainly have managed to ruin the Shaw Alphabet in the same way, and while boasting of progress, it would have continued in reality to promote illiteracy in general and dyslexic problems in particular.

18. Conclusion.

The Shaw Alphabet is undoubtedly highly ingenious, and capable of effecting large savings of time, space and cost in the hands of printers and very precise writers. Graphologically, however, the verdict must be an adverse one. It is not sufficiently robust to remain legible throughout the immense range of individual styles that we constantly encounter, it would be disastrous for dyslexics, and it would destroy perhaps 90% of the science of graphology. It is far too drastic a change to allow us to keep in touch with the vast written and printed documentation of civilisation up to now, and would divorce us from nations continuing to use the Roman Alphabet. It might, in fact, be a serious blow to the supremacy of English as a world language. In short it is a slimming down of written English to the point of anorexia. This is not to deny the need for some kind of reform, but it should be one that skirts round all these pitfalls, and if seriously contemplated, should recruit a graphologist to any panel of experts set up discuss possibilities.


Bunker, Milton (1959) Handwriting Analysis: The Art and Science of Reading Character by Grapho Analysis. Nelson-Hall, Chicago.

Coleman, Alice and Ness Shirley, PACE Graphology Correspondence Course, London.

Kiyo Tollenar-Fujiki (1994) Un Nuovo Approcio alla Scrittura Giapponese. Orientamenti della Grafologia

Knowles, W. N. (1995) Alzheimer's Research Update. AHAF Journal. Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 9. American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Menasse-Cremer, Marie-Josée, and Xu Jiaping (1992) The Precursors of Chinese Graphology. The Graphologist, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 59-66.

Michon, J.H. (1872) Les Mystères de L'Ecriture, Paris.

Peugeot, Jacqueline (1995) Graphology in France. The Graphologist, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 66-71.

Preyer, W.T. (1895) Zur Psychologie des Schreibers, Hamburg. Contemporanea, Ancona.

Shaw, G. Bernard.(1962) Androcles and the Lion (1913) Reprinted with a parallel text in Shaw's Alphabet, with a Foreword by C. R. Sopwith, Public Trustee; an Introduction by Sir James Pitman; Notes on Spelling by Peter MacCarthy; and Suggestions for Writing by Kingsley Read. 151pp. Penguin Books.

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