Thursday, January 13, 2011

when shaw demanded a new alphabet...




i recently came across a book i cannot believe i'd never seen before. it is a penguin paperback edition of bernard shaw's androcles and the lion printed in two languages. on the left side is the english text, but what totally floored me is text on the left, which has been translated into the "shaw alphabet"... and the alphabet's story is quite amazing...

when shaw died, his will contained provisions to appoint a public trustee towards the development of a new "proposed british alphabet", made up of 40 letters, to enable the "said language to be written without indicating single sounds by groups of letters or diacritical marks".

he also specified that a phonetic expert would "transliterate my play androcles and the lion into the proposed british alphabet assuming the pronunciation to resemble that recorded of his majesty king george V, and sometimes described as northern english..."

in 1957, the public trustee announced an award of 500 pounds for the design of such an alphabet, and 450 different designs were eventually submitted in 1958. no single proposal seemed to fit the bill, so the money was split between the top 4 designs, "thus closing the competition." the public trustee then asked "an expert in this field" to work with the designers to create an alphabet closest to shaw's will's graphic phonetical vision. it seems the final design was a group effort, leading to an alphabet that looks a bit like greek or russian characters..

also in the book's introduction:

"here is shaw's alphabet. it has been proved that those who wish to read it can do so after only a few hours of concentrated deciphering... you will notice from the comparisons that shaw's alphabet is more legible and one-third more economical in space than traditional printing... open the book and hold it upside down in front of a mirror. both mirrored pages will thus become equally unfamiliar. keep the back of the book pressed against your lips, and advance towards the mirror until you are able to see individual characters clearly enough to be able to copy them. note that the shaw characters are clearly seen at a greater distance..."

of course, there have been many attempts to re-invent the alphabet, but i don't know of any other situation where a very very famous writer funded a newly written alphabet that was actually used in a publication by a mainstream publisher. at the time the penguin book was published, shaw alphabet editions of androcles and the lion were also offered free to libraries.

online, the alphabet is called both the "shaw alphabet" and the "shavian alphabet" and there are numerous interesting histories, and variations of the typeface online, including some places you can download a program to convert the letters you are looking at right now, into their shavian equivalents. personally, i prefer this musty old penguin with its detachable reading and writing key... which seems somewhat easily found through the usual used book channels...

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Anonymous Thomas Thurman said...

I wrote some of those programs, and I still think anyone interested in the Alphabet should invest in a copy of "Androcles".

9:10 AM  
Blogger Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

The Alphabet seems to lack a much differentiation as the traditional one , which would make it harder to read. R. Graves would be in horror seeing the fall of the sequence of trees hidden in the traditional alphabet arrangement thrown aside, destroying the last remnants of the the religions of the White Goddess [ :) ]

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You got too much time on your hands. As much as I like Shaw, he was probably a insomniac and did such tings to ease his busy mind. Tolkien's alphabets and languages are probably more interesting, but likewise, but fantasy. As is this blog.

3:05 PM  

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