GBS on the ABCs

November 22: On this day in 1962, George Bernard Shaw’s bi-alphabetic version of Androcles and the Lion was published inEngland, as directed by the terms of his will. For his last half-century Shawhad argued that the irrational spelling and pronunciation of the Englishlanguage caused not only semi-literacy but a great loss of time and money. Hewas far from alone in his crusade for an alternative, but Shaw’s reputation fortilting at monuments put him in the vanguard—where he was happiest, of course,but as described here by biographer Michael Holroyd, where he was an easy markfor all the other newspell fanatics:

Unharnessed languagesrushed in at him from everywhere and he beat them off with volleys of witheringadvice on blue printed postcards. . . . But still they came at him, thechampions of Basic English and Simplified Spelling, knights of Interglossa andEsperanto, Novial and Volapük, ancient lords of Visible Speech, irascible younglinguists, strange panoptic conjugators, calligraphers, mathematicalsymbolists, firers of pistics, shorthanders, Pidgin fanciers. He spread hisdramatic skills and left them all for dead.

Having found no systemworth promoting, and getting on in years, Shaw created a trust in his will to developa clear “fonetic alfabet” and a book to promote it, then handed themission to James Pitman, grandson of the shorthand Pitman. After twelve yearsof competitions, refinements, and lawsuits, 50,000 copies of Androcles and the Lion were madeavailable, each readable in both alphabet and alfabet. Those hopeful oflearning the new, faster, easier, more logical system were provided with guidecards and keys and the instruction to “Open the book and hold it upsidedown in front of the mirror…. Keep the back of the book pressed against yourlips, and advance toward the mirror until you are able to see the individualcharacters clearly enough to be able to copy them….”

Shaw’s money for thefonetic revolution finally ran out in 1997, though some continue to promote hiscreation, or to lionize a revised version of it. In his recent Spellbound: The Surprising Origins andAstonishing Secrets of English Spelling, James Essinger discusses suchefforts, arriving at a conclusion which seems clear in any language: “Thosewould-be reformers who have suggested replacing English letters with a newalphabet seem to me, frankly, completely bananas.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.