Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

26 August 2009

Shaw’s Alfabet & Textual Intercourse

George Bernard Shaw wanted to change the alphabet to the ‘alfabet’ believing that a high proportion of semi-literate children in British and other English speaking countries’ schools was because of alphabetical confusion.

He blamed the fact that many of the alphabet’s written letters signified more than one sound and that a plethora of two-letter combinations such as sh and th and ph was detestable.

Examples: C is sounded differently in cooking and cease. G in geranium and gallop. And the anomaly of ph was emphasized in alphabet and alfabet. (Or was it emfasized ?!)

So he set out to reform the alphabet and left money in his will for his crusade to be furthered. On 22 November 1962 his work Androcles and the Lion was published using his new set of symbols. This excerpt is what it looked like:

Which, in every day English reads:- ‘A jungle path. A lion’s roar, a melancholy suffering roar, comes from the jungle. It is repeated nearer. The lion limps from the jungle on three legs, holding up his right forepaw, in which a huge thorn sticks. He sits down and contemplates it. He licks it. He shakes it. He tries to extract it by scraping it along the ground, and hurts himself worse. He roars piteously. He licks it again. Tears drop from his eyes. He limps painfully off the path and lies down under the trees, exhausted with pain. Heaving a long sigh, like wind in a trombone, he goes to sleep.’
Today Shaw’s alfabet is as incomprehensible as heiroglyphs except to the scholar or kinky enthusiast.
Shaw might have been eccentric but he was no fool. He knew that if his alfabet was to be adopted it would be for economic, not cultural reasons. New communications in the language would lead to efficiency and profits. ‘England knows nothing of phonetics, hates education, but will do anything for money.’ He declaimed.

What would Shaw have made of a new reform grown out of the need to save money in telephone communication? A spelling reform most used by the very young people whom he thought couldn’t cope with confusion? What would he have thought if (had he still been alive at the start of the 21st century) his cell phone had given him a new rendering of that extract from Androcles that went something like this…

‘jngl pth. lion rors. lion gt thrn n paw. hrts lk hel. lixit, suxit. nbg. stffd. zzz unda tre’

I expect some nerds out there will tell me I’ve done it all wrong but I’m sure they’ll get my drift.

Txt msgs remind me a bit of telegrams. I expect that if Shaw had read Androcles in telegraphese or textual intercourse he would thought them a huge joke but he would probably have pointed out that while both methods might convey the gist of the story they effectively kill off any literary colour. In doing so he might have realized, too, that it’s the anomalies in English and its alphabet that make the language, its literature and its poetry so rich and exciting. It grows and it changes, it bends and it moulds all at unhurried and majestic pace.

Shaw’s alfabet never stood a chance, and text messaging will only last as long as the technology that supports it.


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By Don Donovan