essay has previously looked at the movies Dr. Strangelove and
Threads, X-ray crystallographers Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy
Hodgkin, and psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin.)
“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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Dewey’s reformist zeal did not stop with librarianship. He also saw
himself in the vanguard of a revolution in education.
his belief that elementary education was being held back by two things:
the American system of weights and measures and English’s complicated
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.
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
did not take this work half-heartedly by any means:
skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentifik, unskolarli, illojikal &
wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
. . . [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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
leaves us wondering whether that old scorn merchant would appreciate the
alphabet’s not so “legible script”, let alone its name.