Shavian English alphabet - a phonetic alphabet for the English language, created in 1959 by the architect Kingsley Read, according to the rules stipulated in the last will and testament of the writer and 1925 Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw. (Shavian = adjectivization of Shaw, "Shaw-ian").

Phonetic shorthand

G B Shaw learned shorthand (Pitman's Shorthand) early on in his writing career and actually did most of his writing in shorthand, a largely phonetic system of writing. This made him acutely aware of the ludicrous phonetic inconsistencies of English spelling. Shaw gleefully demonstrated the shortcomings of written English in his famous ghoti-example - by spelling the word fish as ghoti (gh for the sound "f" as in enough, o for the sound "i" as in women, ti for the sound "sh" as in nation).

Shaw argued during all of his long life (he became 94) that written English was very much in need of a serious phonetic reform. Some of these arguments were put forward in his play "Pygmalion" (the origins of the successful musical "My Fair Lady"). He was also aware that previous spelling reforms had failed. A tailor-made phonetic alphabet for the English language might work better than playing around with the 26 letters of the existing Latin alphabet in order to cover the 40 sounds of the spoken language.

Contested will

With this in mind, Shaw made provisions in his will for the creation of a phonetic English alphabet. It should consist of at least 40 letters, to represent each of the 40 sounds in the English language. Each letter was supposed to represent one sound only. The instructions in Shaw's will also stated that the royalties from all his works for the first 21 years after his death were to be spent by an Alphabet Trust for the creation of such a phonetic alphabet. The sum of all royalties during 21 years would have amounted to more than half a million Pound Sterling.

However, this was not to be. When George Bernard Shaw died in 1950, the will was contested. In an out-of-court settlement the Alphabet Trust got £8,300, only about 2 percent of the sum that the famous author had intended to spend on the task. The British Public Trustee, charged with designing and promoting the alphabet, declared a design competition, with a deadline on New Years Day 1959, and a £500 prize. Of the 467 entries received, 4 were considered worthy of being rewarded with £125 each. The final Shavian English alphabet came to be based on the particular design submitted by the architect Kingsley Read.

In 1962 a special version of George Bernard Shaw's play "Androcles and the Lion" was published by Penguin Books, using the Shavian English alphabet (in parallel with an ordinary English text with Latin letters). The 47,000 copies of this bi-alphabetic book are the only books that have ever been published featuring the Shavian alphabet.

Rational architecture

Kinsley Read's Shavian alphabet is quite cleverly designed. It consists of 48 letters (40 single-sound-letters and 8 compound-sound ligatures) and one "namer" dot (for marking proper nouns, instead of capitalizing the 1st letter). There is just one case (no upper or lower case letters). The letters are of three types - tall, deep, and short. The tall letters look somewhat like the ascender letters in the Latin alphabet (e.g. d, b, h), and the deep letters resemble the Latin descender letters (e.g. p, g, j). The tall and deep letters all denote consonants; the tall ones are unvoiced and the deep ones voiced. The shapes of the tall-deep (unvoiced-voiced) letters are pairwise similar (e.g. for the sound pairs p - b and t - d), making them quite easy to learn. The short letters are mostly vowels.

Bleak prospects, but in Unicode

The future of the Shavian English alphabet doesn't look particularly bright. Not only has the native English-speaking world proved impossible to convince of the need of learning a brand-new alphabet. In addition, the widespread use of English as a tool for international communication would in all probability turn non-native English-speakers around the globe into staunch fighters for preserving the crazy pre-Shavian English spelling. In spite of its uncertain future, we may soon see the Shavian English alphabet included in Unicode. A proposal to this effect has already passed Level 1.

UPDATE 2003-10-14: The Shavian English alphabet has now been added to Unicode and has the Unicode Shavian Range: 10450–1047F. You can read more about it in: www.unicode.org/pending/shavian/shavian.html, where you will also find a link to a Shavian font for Windows and Macintosh.

Reference:

Shavian alphabet chart: www.omniglot.com/writing/shavian.htm

www.unicode.org/pending/shavian/shavian.html

Proposal to add Shavian to Unicode: www.unicode.org/pending/shavian/proposal/shavian.html

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