[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J31, 2002/2, pp9,10]
[This article was published in Spelling Progress Bulletin Fall 1979 pp3-4, and Spelling Reform Anthology pp158-159. The letter was written by GBS to Robert Bridges. .]
[G.B. Shaw and the Shaw alfabet: see Journals, Newsletters, Bulletins.]
George Bernard Shaw - correspondence with I. J. Pitman, Feb. 1910.
The Simplification and Rationalization of the notation of sounds.
to be spoken [or imagined in silent reading], vocabulary, and grammar.
Includes both literacy and oracy so that English may be understood in both forms by all.
Includes both literacy and oracy so that English may be understood in both forms by all.
In 1910, when this was written, Shaw thought he had been successful in silencing the anti-phonetic apologists. Unfortunately, the anti-phonemic argument is alive and well today. It takes a different form within the society where many reformers are opposed to schemes that would be too difficult to sell. Shaw presents his arguments here against mini-reforms. A more detailed development of these ideas can be found in a 20 page preface to a 1941 book, The Miraculous Birth of Language.It is hard to say that there is a psychological moment for reforming spelling, or the calendar, or for adding those two digits to our numbers which would combine the advantages of the decimal and duodecimal methods of computation. It may be, however, that we have at last succeeded in making the anti-phonetic stupidity unfashionable. But I confess I am not very sanguine about it. The only people who have got any money in the business are those silly Simplified Spelling Americans who have provided my friend William Archer with an office and a secretaryship in London. As far as I know, they are doing what in them lies to make the reform thoroughly unpopular and ridiculous.
There have been about five windows of opportunity in the past. Reformers simply arrived with too little too late. The footholds were lost because they were unable to get to the next plateau. In the early 1900's it was possible to call the newsletter of the SSA, the Spelling Progress Bulletin. At that time, a majority of language teachers and their professional societies thought there could be progress. An article in a popular magazine predicted a reformed spelling of American English by 1950. Today, most scholars have bought into the arguments of Bradley, Chomsky, and Venezky. They claim that progress is impossible and that reform provides no assured benefits.
Shaw criticizes linguists for lacking a debating instinct. twdA, ther iz Evan a grAtar re'luktans for pro'feSanal liNgwists tw en'gAj in publik de'bAt. Shaw thought that a phonemic spelling of English would be mistaken for illiterate misspelling. It does not seem likely with the above EngliS transcription. Even if the caps were replaced with diacritics, the unigraphic spelling would still be odd and not likely to be confused with traditional English.
I have been for a long time convinced that the two most important points to get into people's heads are, first, that unless the phonetic spelling is carried out with sufficient boldness and thoroughness to make it quite unlike ordinary spelling and so avoid that ludicrous effect of being simply illiterate misspelling which was so comic in the works of Artemus Ward, the reform will die of ridicule, and, second, that if we do not spell words as they are pronounced, our readers will pronounce words as they are spelt, so that in the end we shall have a change in the English spoken language which is in no way desirable. On this second point in particular I should always blame the phoneticians for a lack of debating instinct which has prevented them from carrying the war into the enemy's country. The modern pronunciation of such words as 'oblige' proves that in the long run scholarly pronunciation cannot stand out against spelling.
This has been especially forced on my attention by my intercourse, in Labor and Socialist movements, with working men who read a great deal, but have no opportunity in their own class of hearing the words they read actually spoken. They therefore have to resort to such pronunciation as the spelling may suggest to them: for instance, semi-conscious becomes see-my-conscious. If this only led to their being laughed at, it would be painful and unjust; but it would not hurt the language. Unfortunately, it becomes accepted as the standard pronunciation with quite appalling rapidity, because if you and I persist in the Orthodox pronunciation, we are simply not understood, just as if you tell a London cabman to drive to Arundel street, he does not understand you; whereas if you tell him to drive to Rundle Street, he understands you at once. Perhaps he may be right I really do not know what the proper pronunciation of Arundel is; but the illustration is none the worse.
An insistence on these points has been practically my only contribution to the movement. I do not know whether I was the first to urge them; but certainly in the old days of Alexander J. EIlis and James Lecky, none of the men on our side made any use of then).
The man of that time I had most hopes for was Henry Sweet; but Sweet's utter want of any sort of social tact - sometimes even of common humanity - seems to make him hopeless except as a writer of books which are only read by specialists. At the time when Imperialism was booming, I induced the editor of one of the leading reviews to invite Sweet to write an article on the importance of phonetics as a means of not only making the English language easy to learn, but also of preventing it from finally splitting up into dialects which would make American and Australian and South African and Eurasian practically foreign languages. Sweet jumped at the opportunity to make a terrific attack on an Oxford professor whom he regarded as an imposter from the phonetic point of view, on the University for giving the professor the appointment, and on the Universe generally for tolerating the University. The editor of course refused to print the article (which would probably have involved him in a libel action) and if Sweet ever writes another magazine article, he will probably devote it to a similar denunciation of that editor of that magazine, and by extension, of the entire press of the world. I then tried to get a sort of Chair of Languages established at the London School of Economics; and if Sweet had been socially capable of following this up, and had been willing to shift his quarters to London, I believe I might have pulled it off. But Sweet has now got the Oxford habit of life in his antagonistic way just as hopelessly as any Don has got it in the conformist way; so nothing came of it.
What we want now is a phonetic institute of some kind or another, either independent, or as a branch of some of our great educational institutions. I believe the British Museum has already taken steps to procure and store for future reference phonographic records of contemporary speech. As a definite project, it might strike the imagination of the country a little, I should suggest that a fluid should be collected for the purpose of printing a phonetic Shakespear It so happens that at this moment we have one actor, Forbes Robertson, who, being Scotch by extraction, speaks a dignified, handsome, and what I should call correct English, and not the dialect of the motor car and the week-end hotel.  If we could get some good gramophone records of speeches from Robertson's Shakespearian parts, and agree upon a method of recording his pronunciation in ordinary type, so as to make the book available for the use of actors and the public generally, we could employ some young man - say one of Sweet's pupils - to prepare a complete Shakespear. This, of course, would be a considerable job; but it has the advantage that if it were found too large an undertaking, it could be cut down to a selected number of plays, or even to one play: say Hamlet. I have sometimes thought of getting a gramophone record made of Robertson's delivery of the Sphinx speech in my own Caesar and Cleopatra and proceeding as above to issue a phonetic edition of the play as a sort of document in the history of the language. But I had only time to imagine these things; when it comes to action, I find myself always with two years arrears of pressing literary work on my hands and so nothing gets done. I daresay you are pretty much in the same predicament yourself. Until by some means, we can get a little group of trained phoneticians who will put all their time into the work for a modest salary, nothing but talk will come of it.
I need hardly say that it would be very delightful to make gramophone records of some of your poems, as spoken by yourself. The advantage of this sort of thing is that it gets rid of the entirely impossible and insoluble question as to whether your pronunciation is ideally correct, which is the rock that splits all the phonetic enterprises. If we could leave in the British Museum - failing a public institution specialized for phonetics - a record of your pronunciation, with a simple statement of your birthplace, and education, and class, and, if necessary, a string of testimonials from your contemporaries to say that your speech was that customary among educated Englishmen of your time, with any criticisms they like to add, as, for instance, that you pronounce such and such words like a Kentish man, or that you had an Oxford drawl, or had inherited some locution from an Irish grandmother, or anything else that might strike them, the phoneticians of the 25th century would at any rate have something to go on that we have not got with regard to Shakespear or Chaucer. In the same way, all question as to whether Robertson's pronunciation is correct could be set aside: the record would go down as Robertson's pronunciation for what it is worth, with of course the information that Robertson was accepted as the finest speaker on the British stage. If we had such a record of Garrick's pronunciation we should never dream of questioning its value simply because no twenty scholars of Garrick's time could have been induced to agree that his pronunciation was ideally correct.
I throw out these suggestions more or less at random. I do not exactly know what you propose that we should do though I am tolerably certain that 1 shall not have time to do anything of it. But if you can plan a campaign with any sort of promise in it, I am game to give it my blessing and subscribe a few pounds towards paying for the executive part of the business.
-Yours faithfully, G. B. S.
 From the collection of Sir James Pitman. K.B.E.
 Poet Laureate at the time, who had many of his poems printed & published by the Oxford Univ. Press in a S & R alphabet of which CBS impliedly approved.
 Shaw, in his will, chose & required, "the pronunciation of His Late Majesty, King George V;' of which there are plenty of audio-recordings.
Reprinted by permission of the G.B. Shaw Estate and the Soc. of Authors.
Back to the top.