N1. 6pp. (Efemeral membership matters have been omitted.)
On this page: The Shaw Alphabet Competition - Some Background. Bob Brown.
On other pages: part 2. Journals, Shaw Alphabet articles.
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet, Book, Papers.]

Newsletter April 1991, part 1.

from Chris Upward (Membership Secretary & Editor).

Founded in 1908.
Past Presidents: Walter Skeet, Gilbert Murray, Daniel Jones, Sir James Pitman, John Downing
President: Dr. Donald G Scragg. Vice-Presidents: Professor D. Abercrombie. Lord Simon of Glaisdale.

Androcles and the Lion, Shaw Alphabet edition.

Chris Upward.

We are pleased to distribute to members the enclosed not easily obtainable volume. The Society has received the remaining copies of the original printing from the Society of Authors, which has been handling the Shaw estate. [N.B. no longer available July 2003.]

What significance has the Shaw alphabet today? Is it just a historical curiosity, representing, with its rejection of the Roman alphabet, perhaps the most extreme (and hence impractical?) approach to English spelling reform? The circumstances of its creation (see Bob Brown's article below) are certainly of historical interest, and we must admire the elegance and consistency of its design. Many readers will no doubt find it repays careful study.

The insights it can give go beyond the historical and the linguistic. A difficulty faced by those who study the psychology of acquiring literacy skills is that, as adults, we can only observe the thought processes of the learner from the outside: we note the progress and the setbacks, and try thus indirectly to deduce what is going on in learners' minds. However, if we take the trouble to master the Shaw alphabet, we can observe ourselves trying to cope with some of the problems that face beginner. Compared with beginners, though, we have an important advantage: we can already read and write (using a different system), so are only transferring our skills from the Roman to the Shaw alphabet. We are not acquiring literacy skills for the first time.

Attempting to master the Shaw alphabet is an interesting task. Most of the symbols are as unfamiliar as the letters of the Roman alphabet are to the child learner, so we first have to memorize their forms. Secondly, we have to memorize the sound-symbol correspondences. And thirdly, we have to practise reading and writing the system until it becomes familiar and its use ultimately automatic. All that, most of us will probably discover, is quite demanding, even as literate adults-although the spelling of individual words is scrupulously regular. Pity therefore the initial learner of conventional English spelling, who has no prior literacy skills at all and at the same time has to come to terms with a quite unpredictable use of symbols.

Psychologists may like to try out the Shaw alphabet as an experimental resource: with articulate, self-aware adult subjects, they can follow some of the same stages that child learners have to pass through en route to literacy in English.

[Bob Brown: see Journals, Newsletters, Personal View 1, Pamflet 13.]

The Shaw Alphabet Competition - Some Background

by Bob Brown, Secretary, Simplified Spelling Society.

In 1958 a public competition was held to select a new alphabet for the English language, funded from the estate of George Bernard Shaw who had died eight years previously. Over 450 designs were submitted and a prize of £500 was shared between four entries judged of outstanding merit. It was decided, wisely, not to try to combine such disparate designs. One of them, by the British typographer Kingsley Read, was selected - with minor adjustments - to be the final outcome. In 1962 Penguin Books published, and distributed free to many libraries worldwide, a parallel-text edition of Androcles & the Lion using Read's design, again funded from the Shaw estate. Some typewriters were made for the new alphabet, and Read published a duplicated magazine for enthusiasts until he died in 1975. Since then, little has been heard of this brave attempt to revolutionise the way we write.

Such are the bare facts of the Shaw Alphabet Competition, as it has come to be known. You can read more detail in the introductory and explanatory material in the enclosed copy. Other relatively accessible public accounts can be found in Haas (1969) and Tauber (1965). This brief article aims to sketch in a little background not addressed in those public sources, and is mostly taken from research material for a book-in-progress.

During most of his long life Shaw showed strong interest in improving the efficiency of the tool with which he earned his living-the English language. As early as 1901 he was supporting in the Press calls for spelling reforms of the type put forward by his "friend William Archer", who was a leading light in the Simplified Spelling Society and principal author of the scheme later entitled New Spelling. A few years later his comments on President Theodore Roosevelt's American reforms of 1906 were characteristically lively! His best-known venture, however, which he called "an advertisement for the science of phonetics", was the play Pygmalion. He experimented with various ways to represent Eliza Doolitttle's cockney accent, between the first edition in 1912 and the latest in 1942. Sometime in this period Shaw came to the radical view that digraphic schemes like New Spelling, or proposals using diacritics or extra letters, just would not do. The problem was the alphabet. Why not scrap it and start afresh with one designed for the task?

By 1944 he was telling the world that his fortune would, after his death, be used to promote a completely new alphabet. But it was characteristic of the man that he had tantalised others with the prospect of funding before finally deciding on the new-alphabet bequest. One of the more famous of these was CK Ogden, whose Basic English received massive exposure during the 1930s as a simplified form of the language, for teaching and international communication. Ogden did not envisage changing spelling at all - he contended that, with only 850 items to worry about, a learner could memorise the pronunciation and spelling at the same time as the meaning. It is clear from correspondence between these men that Shaw had as late as 1940 led Ogden to believe his project was favoured. So Ogden was naturally surprised -actually 'aghast' might be a better description - to hear early in 1944 that the great man had changed his mind, in favour of a new alphabet scheme. It is interesting to speculate what might have changed that mind.

In January 1942 a typography expert from Sutton Coldfield called Kingsley Read wrote to Shaw about some of the ideas for phonetic writing the latter had mentioned in his preface to RA Wilson's The Miraculous Birth of Language (1941). Read was educated as a designer and was for some years a partner in a toy-making business before starting his own company as a lettering expert: he supplied everything from neon- and shop-signs to sign-writing and calligraphy. As a hobby he had been studying phonetics and experimenting with alternative scripts for many years.

A friendly correspondence with Shaw ensued and in the summer of 1943 Read was ready (and bold enough) to send a "manual" to Shaw setting out a new alphabet and its detailed rationale. Shaw was impressed. "This is far and away the best alphabet with the best head at the back of it that has yet come my way" he wrote in a (no doubt highly galling) note to Ogden. It seems to have been early in 1944 that Shaw changed his Will away from Ogden towards a new alphabet trust. He praised Read directly, and promptly introduced him to Sir James (then Mr IJ) Pitman.

Pitman was an MP and head of the family publishing company founded by his grandfather. He was also a lifelong supporter of spelling reform, and at that time an officer of the Simplified Spelling Society. Shaw seems to have seen him as a man-of-action in this field, even going so far as to write to him, following the changing of the Will "and so I wash my hands of the business and leave the field open to you to do the job with a grant-in-aid [...] under the Shaw bequest if you care to." Following the introduction, an active collaboration and friendship ensued, with Pitman offering Read much advice and practical support over the years. In 1946 we find Read sending Shaw a new and improved version of his manual following discussion with Pitman.

As is often the case with complex bequests, immediately after Shaw's demise in 1950 a bitter dispute arose over the Will. The estate had been swollen with income from the musical adaptation of Pygmalion as My Fair Lady, and the famous film version which followed that. A number of residuary legatees, led by the British Museum, challenged the validity of the alphabet trust that the Will established ahead of them in the queue for funds. The legal wranglings continued over several years, with the contesters finally winning on a legal technicality, despite Shaw's wishes being clear enough.

In no small measure due to Pitman's efforts, a sum of money was set aside, however, to fund an alphabet competition and in 1958 the Public Trustee, as executor, eventually published an advertisement inviting responses.

Due to its origin in the cause célèbre of the Shaw Will, and its natural appeal to newspaper editors as an eccentric news-item, the competition received wide coverage in many countries. As a result the Public Trustee was astonished to receive a total of 467 submissions from all over the world. A proportion of them were from children, or were ill-informed, or were just plain dotty, but, after discarding these, there was still a large number of serious designs. The panel of judges included Sir James Pitman and Peter MacCarthy, lecturer in phonetics at Leeds University.

Because of the difficulty in assessing the relative merits of very disparate designs, it was decided to compromise and split the prize between four entrants, each judged best in one of four main styles of alphabet. One winner was a Canadian housewife, two were British armchair alphabet-designers and the fourth was Kingsley Read. As the Public Trustee wanted to publish a Shaw play and distribute 13,000 copies to libraries worldwide, the problem was now to distil a single alphabet from the four.

Quite correctly, it was decided not to attempt to merge such different designs and it seems to have been left to Pitman to choose which one should be the basis for the final version. On 19th July 1960 the Trustee finally wrote to Kingsley Read: "Mr Pitman informs me that he recommends that you should provide the final design ... [and I therefore] inform you that I have accepted his advice." Peter MacCarthy then had the unenviable and delicate task of persuading the other winners that their designs would go no further, and the more congenial job of working with Read to polish his submission into the final form you see in the book. Both Read and MacCarthy were much involved during the next two years in the technical challenges of making the transliteration of Androcles and seeing the book through the press.

So Shaw's wishes were finally realised, 12 years after his death, and the effect on English orthography was ... a predictable zero. Besides a small duplicated magazine called ShawScript that Read put out for a few years after the publication of Androcles, no other publication has ever used the alphabet to this day. But the whole exercise was in its way a triumph of scholarship and design - the alphabet does map very well onto English phonetics, and its design is efficient and pleasing - so maybe its time will come one day, for some limited purpose anyway. Shaw's conviction that such an alphabet would quickly gain support through its inherent merits, and become widely adopted, seems as fanciful today as ever.


Haas, W (ed.) (1969) Alphabets for English Manchester: Univ. Press.
Tauber, A (ed.) (1965) Shaw on Language London: Peter Owen.

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