Dewey and Sweet
[ Issue 30 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Dewey and Sweet

Bikwil will always sing the praises of Dewey and Sweet

Dewey and Sweet

Dewey and Sweet is the third and final part of Dr. Strangelove and Friends, another in our Stepping Stones series.

We pick up the connections where we left off in Part Two — with Alzheimer's Disease

Dewey’s reformist zeal did not stop with librarianship. He also saw himself in the vanguard of a revolution in education.

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Dr. Strangelove and Friends
[ Stepping Stones No. 2 ]
— Tony Rogers

(This essay has previously looked at the movies Dr. Strangelove and Threads, X-ray crystallographers Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin, and psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin.)

Sure, “Alzheimer’s” may be a household word these days (albeit whispered), yet Kraepelin’s psychiatric classification is now scarcely known as such, even among educated people. But of course history is not particularly kind to the memory of classifiers. Take the 1753 botanical landmark of Species Plantarum by the Swede Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), for example. This classic remains the foundation for the modern classification system of living organisms, but how widely remembered is Linnaeus’ name today?

The name of Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey (1851-1931) will possibly be unfamiliar to the world at large too, though I dare say from time to time we all have been helped, directly or indirectly, by the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), used in thousands of libraries throughout the world.

Dewey was only 21 when he devised his scheme for classifying library materials, which he first issued in 1876 in a 42-page booklet. In it he introduced two unheard-of features to the library world: relative location and relative index.

Prior to this, books were numbered according to their fixed locations on library shelves. The Dewey system, on the other hand, allocates book “call numbers” that reflect their logical relationship to one another without regard for the shelves or rooms where they are placed. It thus follows that relative location permits the open-ended insertion of new books without altering the call numbers of existing ones.

What Dewey meant by the “relative index” was an alphabetical list that brings together under one term the locations in the scheme of a subject that falls in several fields of study. While the classification tries to put all books on the one subject in the same place, it is a fact that not all books on a subject cover the same aspect of it. Take automobiles, for example, where auto engineering belongs in one spot in the classification while auto accident prevention goes in another and auto transport is in a third.

The same year as he issued his booklet, Dewey also helped found the American Library Association. A year later he established Columbia University's School of Library Economy, thus launching the discipline of library science in America. Indeed, he probably contributed more than any other individual to the development of librarianship in that country, and is today regarded internationally as one of a handful of giants in the profession’s history.

But Dewey’s reformist zeal did not stop with librarianship. He also saw himself in the vanguard of a revolution in education.

It was his belief that elementary education was being held back by two things: the American system of weights and measures and English’s complicated spelling.

Accordingly, with the objective of solving the first problem, Dewey (also in 1876) became secretary of the American Metric Bureau, an organization promoting the use of international decimal weights and measures.

Again in 1876 (a mighty busy twelve months for our Melvil, it seems), he involved himself in the foundation of the American Spelling Reform Association, which arose out of the International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography held during the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia earlier that year. He remained the Association’s Secretary for almost all his life.

And Dewey did not take this work half-heartedly by any means:

Speling skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentifik, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind.

He even went as far as to use his simplified spelling throughout the second edition of his Decimal Classification, where it remained in the classification tables until it was dropped after the 14th edition. Only Dewey's Introduction kept using his spelling (at least up to the 18th edition).

But the truth is, Dewey was unable to express all 42 sounds of English using an alphabet of just 26 letters, and this limitation made some of his spelling as ambiguous as the standard spelling. Furthermore, trying to use a simplified spelling classification was especially troublesome in countries in which English wasn't the first language. Native speakers might instinctively see what the heading Jeolojy means, but that is because they know that g sometimes sounds the same as j.

While some traces of simplified spelling are still to be found in American English (e.g. catalog, nite, program, thru), the more extreme recommendations of Dewey and his group have yet to find wide acceptance.

He was indeed obsessively passionate in his desire for spelling simplification, and so although born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, for consistency’s sake he made sure he dropped his middle names and changed the spelling of his first name. So it’s Melvil Dewey the librarian, then, now and forever — but just remember this: for a short while, our orthographical reformer even spelled his last name Dui.

And on it has gone, this gallant but hitherto ineffective endeavour to change our spelling into something simpler and more consistent.

On occasion, such attempts have become the butt of jokes (like the Five Year Plan for EuroEnglish contributed by landoc to Bikwil Issue 14, July 1999). Mind you, for the best humorous piece on the debate, I recommend Mark Twain’s very funny address at the Annual Dinner of Associated Press in September 1906.

English has not been the only language that reformers have zealously attempted to adjust spelling-wise over the last century or so, as the Man from Abdera pointed out in relation to German in Bikwil Issue 6, March 1998). Yet it seems that English has needed the most help from influential people.

In addition to Mark Twain, we could list the following celebrities who endorsed spelling simplification: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov.

But no literary personage became better known in this advocacy than George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), and nowhere is his interest in it more apparent than in his “anti-romantic” comic masterpiece Pygmalion, the basis for the musical comedy My Fair Lady.

In Bikwil Issue 8, July 1998, Harlish Goop reminded us that the Pygmalion role of Professor Henry Higgins was based on the Oxford philologist Henry Sweet (1845-1912). A pioneer of Anglo-Saxon studies, Sweet wrote widely on phonetics also, his History of English Sounds (1874) being regarded a landmark in the field.

As far as Shaw was concerned, it was Sweet’s phonetics work, especially his “Romaic Phonetic Alphabet” of 1900, that was of most fascination.

Indeed, look at the Preface Shaw wrote to the play. Pygmalion’s purpose, he argues, is to draw people’s attention to the importance of phonetics, because

. . . [t]he English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They cannot spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like . . . The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

In the Preface (entitled A Professor of Phonetics and published the year after Sweet’s death) Shaw includes a lengthy description of him, though he warns us that Higgins was not intended to be a caricature — Sweet was just a starting point.

For one thing, Sweet’s disdain and chip-on-his-shoulder attitudes made him far less likeable than even the know-all Higgins. Shaw wrote of him,

He was about as conciliatory to conventional mortals as Ibsen or Samuel Butler . . . the adventure of Eliza Doolittle would have been impossible [for him, but] . . . [with] Higgins's physique and temperament Sweet might have set the Thames on fire . . .

. . . His true objective was the provision of a full, accurate, legible script for our noble but ill-dressed language; but he was led past that by his contempt for the popular Pitman system of shorthand, which he called the Pitfall system.

Sweet reserved his loudest sneers — Shaw called it “his Satanic contempt” — for university dons who thought that the study of Latin and Greek was the only linguistic goal worth pursuing and who considered the English language undeserving of any academic attention whatever.

Perhaps it was this outsider feeling that drew non-academics Sweet and James Murray (chief editor of the Oxford Dictionary) together. At any rate, Sweet was the leading comparative philologist of his generation, just as his disciple Murray would become its greatest lexicographer.

Today, though largely forgotten, the name of our phonetics professor has been at least resuscitated in the Henry Sweet Society, founded in Britain in 1984 and dedicated to the history of linguistics.

Before we leave the subject, I should add that by the time Shaw died he had become so engrossed in phonetic spelling that he left provision in his will for further studies into the question. Like Andrew Carnegie before him, Shaw wanted his name and money to add credibility to The Cause. It wasn’t just a small sum, however; it was in truth the bulk of his fortune, together with provisions for a competition.

This competition was for the design, primarily for writers, of a new phonetic English alphabet — which meant, as far as Shaw was concerned, one based on the speech of England's King George V. The contest was held during 1958, and the alphabet selected was designed by Kingsley Read. It has 48 characters, all different in appearance from Roman letters and with no upper/lower case distinction. Four characters each singly represent the common words and, of, the and to.

Although now moribund, the Shaw/Read alphabet has been espoused to such an extent that desperate aficionados can download the whole font from the Internet. Today known as the “Shavian” alphabet, it nevertheless owes a great deal to Henry Sweet’s exertions on his “Romaic Phonetic Alphabet”.

And it leaves us wondering whether that old scorn merchant would appreciate the alphabet’s not so “legible script”, let alone its name.

Not bloody likely.

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