A brief review of some historical alternatives to the Latin alphabet. -- by Nicholas Fabian.
A brief review of some historical
alternatives to the Latin alphabet.

N. Fabian by Nicholas Fabian

It is self evident that the Roman alphabet is superbly well suited to represent the Latin language. But, it is also clear that without numerous accents, additional characters, grammatical rules and even more exceptions, the same twenty-six characters are a poor choice to represent the sounds of English or most other western languages. Depending on the scholarly references choosen the suggested expanded alphabet varies, but it is prudent to say that the optimal number of characters is around forty.

Of course, the evolution of language and alphabet seldom follows the most direct route in history. For the past two-and-a-half-thousand years, both scholars and curious lay people had approached this problem from many different points of view, some of which are rather unconventional or even bizarre. As the following historical records illustrate, they range from shorthand to accents and additional characters -- all the way to inventing completely new alphabets. In a capsulated form, language reform is an arresting story of our civilization.

Shorthand was invented by the Greek historian Xenophon (431-350 BC) who used it first to write the memoirs of Socrates. Three hundred years later another shorthand was invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro, (Cicero's secretary) in 63 BC. Tiro's Latin shorthand system, named notae Tironianae ("Tironian notes") from the Roman Empire remained in use for the next thousand years.¹¹

Tironian Notes
The Tironian Notes alphabet, as published by
Jean Tritheme, a Benedictine Monk, in 1613.

During the Middle Ages, shorthand died out because the practice became associated with black magic and witchcraft and it became too dangerous for writers to use. With the emergence of the Renaissance, interest in shorthand re-surfaced and during the next three hundred years various shorthand systems were developed by several people including Timothy Bright, John Willis, Thomas Shelton, William Mason, Samuel Taylor and Franz Xaver Gabelsberger of Germany. Numerous books were published during this period, including the Bible, prayer books and some of the classics using currently popular shorthand notations. These early pioneers were followed by Sir Isaac Pitman, the inventor of the Pitman Shorthand (1837), a system based on the work of Samuel Taylor. Pitman was not only an inventor but also an strong advocate of spelling reform and encouraged his friend, Noah Webster, to simplify the spelling of American English.

The great literary genius Mark Twain, using his biting wit also joined the fray and often included an amusing piece of text during his popular speaking engagements. An excerpt from his parody of phonetic spelling proves the point in all its comical absurdity.

"Furst tiem I wuz in Egypt a simplified speling epidemic had broeken out and th atmosfeer wuz electrical with feeling enjenderd bi th subject. This wuz for or fiev thousand yeerz ago. Th Simplifieerz had rizen in revolt agenst th hieroglifics. An uncl of Cadmus hoo wuz out of a job hud cum to Egypt and wuz trieing to introdoos th Phonecian alfabet and get it adopted in plaes of th hieroglifics. Th Simplifieerz wer fue; th Opozisihun wer multituedinus. Amung th Simplifieerz wer meny men of lurning and distinkshun, maenly litererry men and memberz of colej facultyz; but aul ranks and condishunz of men and aul graedz of intelect, erruedishun, and ignorans wer reprezented in th Opozishun."
In addition to being a humorous paragraph, the text also brings into focus many problems of phonetic spelling and the English language.

Language reform is an integral part of our civilization and the constantly evolving language must be able to support the intellectual superstructure of our rapidly changing technological age with precise and accurate communication. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt, set up a Simplified Spelling Board in an attempt to legislate changes to the English language in the United States. Coincidentally, Vladimir Ilich Lenin in the Soviet Union during the early 1920s also set up a commission to reform the Russian language in a way that it could be transliterated into the Latin alphabet. In spite of their political power base, neither system had gained any historical momentum or contributed in any significant way to solve the language dilemma caused by poorly conceived alphabets.

Probably the most massive language change that had ever taken place in the world was in Turkey in 1928 when, by government decree, writing was changed from Arabic to a new Latin based alphabet. Twenty nine years later the Chinese State Council enacted a resolution to change from the existing Chinese ideographic writing (with 30,000 plus different symbols) to a new extended 30 character phonetic Latin alphabet. Today, the world is still anxiously awaiting the "Big Change" in China. It will be a social and cultural change so massive that it is an almost inconceivable undertaking for any government, in any society. If fully implemented, its historical significance will superceed both the building of the "Great Wall of China" and Mao's "Long March."

It is not a coincidence that the most successful new speech notation systems in the English speaking world were the phonetically-based Pitman (1837) and Gregg shorthands (1888), both of which are complementary writing systems to the Latin alphabet. They use abbreviations, accents and special signs to simplify and speed up the process of writing. As a practical linguistic tool, the shorthand systems stand on their own and make no attempt to change any elements of the Latin alphabet. Because of their efficiency and speed, these shorthand systems are used daily by business, legal and parliamentary secretaries around the world in addition to the Latin alphabet. Speed Writing is an other form of shorthand, one which uses only abbreviations and existing characters from the Latin alphabet without any other special signs. With the advancement of the industrial age, several machine assisted transcribing devices were invented of which the most notable are the Stenograph and Stenotype systems. They depend on simultaneous multi-key techniques to record syllables, words or entire phrases of the language.

During the first few centuries of printing in Europe, the alphabet contained an alternate lower case letter "s" (called the "long s") which was probably the most visually confusing character ever invented by anyone. It resembled the lower case letter "f" to such a degree that it greatly impeded fluent reading and hence, cohesive comprehension. In the English speaking world, the "long s" was first formally discarded by Joseph Ames (1689-1759) and later by the noted printer-publisher, John Bell (1745-1831). In France, it was Fran├žois-Ambroise Didot (1730-1804), the first influential printer-publisher to discard the use of the "long s" from all his publications. The process of expunging the "long s" is unique because instead of being added to, the character was discarded from the alphabet.

The long
Examples of the "long s" used in modern text.

Alternate alphabets.

In the middle of the eighteen century, the illustrious Benjamin Franklin designed an alternate phonetic alphabet in which each letter represented only one sound and each sound was represented by only one letter. In concert with Franklin's new alphabet, Noah Webster, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, initiated a system of simplified spelling which is responsible for many of the differences between American and English spelling of words today.

Franklin Alphabet
Text fragment from the extended alphabet of Benjamin Franklin.
From Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces, London 1779.

Another historical curiosity is the Mormon Deseret Alphabet devised in the 1850s by George D. Wyatt, who was one of Pitman's phonography students in England. In 1837 Wyatt converted to Mormonism, therefore it is not surprising that he was put in charge of the new Deseret Alphabet which had its origin in the shorthand system developed by Sir Isaac Pitman. After two years of revisions, the final version of the alphabet had 38 characters and each represented a unique sound in the English language.

Deseret Alphabet
Character examples of the Mormon Deseret Alphabet.

Alexander Melville Bell's (1819-1905) Visible Speech alphabet was another contender to replace the existing Latin alphabet with a phonetic one, one which better illustrates the sounds used in the English language. The essence of his great genius was that the alphabet he created became independent of any specific language. The characters function was to accurately illlustrate predetermined sounds, in any language. Which of course included the vocalization of sign language for the deaf. (Melville Bell was Alexander Graham Bell's father and a highly acclaimed teacher of the deaf, as was Alexander in the early 1870s).

Visible Speech Alphabet
Example of Alexander Melville Bell's Visible Speech Alphabet.

Henry Sweet's (1813-1898?) Organic Alphabet was another attempt to create a flexible phonetic alphabet. Sweet was a nineteenth century phonetician who modified Bell's Visible Speech concept to form his own less rigid Organic Alphabet. The current International Phonetic Alphabet was also based on Sweet's Organic Alphabet and today it contains enough exotic characters, accents and modifiers to satisfy even the most fanatical linguistic research scholar.

 International Phonetic Alphabet
Example of International Phonetic Alphabet.

George Bernard Shaw's "Universal Alphabet" is an artificial alphabet that was created by an architect designer, Kingsley Read, as a response to a public contest initiated by George Bernard Shaw in his will.

 Shaw's universal alphabet
Sample characters from George Bernard Shaw's Universal Alphabet..

Bradbury Thompson (1911-1995) was a highly respected graphic designer who emerged as the father of modern magazine design in America. His depth of research and range of creative ideas supported an unequalled drive for excellence in every aspect of graphic design. Thompson's single-case alphabet is a form of revival of the "case-less" uncial mode of writing. He used a mix of lower and upper case characters from existing non-uncial fonts. Thompson's lower case characters are just an optically scaled smaller version of the case-less capital letters. He correctly observed that in western civilization people are using two different alphabets. The capital letters are based on the Roman alphabet and the lower case letters are direct descendants from Charlemagne's (768-814) consolidated scriptoriums. Most lower case letters have little or no resemblance whatsoever to their capital companions, which makes learning more difficult than really necessary.

Thompson alphabet
Example of the Bradbury Thompson alphabet.

The Mesa Polyglot alphabet was invented by Juan Mesa, a 72 year old Cuban-American living in Miami. This alphabet is unique in several ways. The character shapes are not tied to any specific culture or language. The Mesa Polyglot alphabet is simple to learn as the capital and lower case letters are identical in structure other than their size. The character set also contains unique numerals. Punctuations, literary and commercial signs are standard. Both consonants and vowels follow a very easily remembered mirrored repetitive positional notation. The vowels are graphically placed to follow a "sound-quadrant matrix" position logic with "a" located at lower left, "e" being lower right, "i" is upper left, "u" is upper right, and finally "o" that is neutral, which locates it in the middle without any pointers.

Mesa Polyglot alphabet
Example of the Mesa Polyglot alphabet in use.

The so called, articulatory alphabet is a group of unique symbols that represent sounds of speech. The proposition suggests that the character shapes of the alphabet originated by some ancient scribes attempting to trace the contour of lips, the position of tongue in the mouth cavity and the breathing passage, is an intriguing one. But, when this concept is examined on a global basis the assumption becomes less tenable. Elementary linguistic research confirms that different people on different continents and at different geographical locations arrived at different graphic symbols to express the same sounds. Without any doubt, scholarly debates about the articulatory origin of the alphabet will continue well into the foreseeable future.

Articulatory alphabet
Example of the articulatory alphabet.

Beyond the above groups exists some fringe elements which language scholars cannot easily categorize. These so called, "deviant alphabets" are character sets that not follow the expected or "normal" rules of alphabetic set formation. The alphabets contain different numbers, forms, names or order of characters (abecedary sequence), such as the Runes, Glagolitic and other similar writing systems. The Glagolitic¹ alphabet was invented in 862 AD and was used for the dissemination of Slavonic liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for Roman Catholic Slavs while the Cyrillic alphabet² was introduced to the Eastern Orthodox Slavs. Glagolithic letter forms are quite different from the Cyrillic characters but their number and identical sound values does indicate a common origin. Even today, the Glagolithic alphabet is still used in the Slavonic liturgy in some Dalmatian and Montenegrin communities.

Glagolitic and Cyrillic characters
Sample characters from the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets.

Some linguistic reform groups and individual scholars, including Dr. Michael Avinor, are attempting to expand the Latin alphabet only by a few additional characters, as described in various scholarly papers and detailed personal correspondence. Without the availability of scientific forecasting tools in linguistics, only time will tell whether this incremental approach of attempting to change the Latin alphabet has any historical validity. What can be predicted with utmost certainty is that Dr. Avinor's and other linguistic pioneers desired changes to the Latin alphabet will not be the last. It seems, language is too enticing a target to be left alone both by curious laymen and language scholars alike.

New Character-1 New Character-2 New Character-3 New Character-4 New Character-5 New Character-6
Examples of Dr. Michael Avinor's proposed new characters.

Of course, language reforms are not limited to the English speaking world. More recently, in Munich, Germany, opponents described the German spelling reform movement by a more colloquial term, referring to it as "orthographic imbecility" ("orthographischer Schildburgerstreich"). Reform or no reform, they certainly have a way with words.

Extrapolating into the future.

During the past several decades scientific discoveries have been taking place at a phenomenal rate. From genetics to information processing and nano technogy, the fields are littered with six months old obsolete technological wonders. It is an almost certainty that a non-linear linguistic code up-shift will take place during the first few decades of the 21st century. A new linguistic paradigm will emerge. The resulting change will be revolutionary, dramatic and all encompassing. Current linguistic concepts and their old fashioned methods of patching regional alphabets will be relegated to the side line of history. It is reasonable to predict that direct-to-visual-cortex neurological implants, direct-retinal scans³ and direct audio input systems are only a few decades away from becoming the information lifeline to hundreds of millions, or perhaps several billions of people. If these nano-technology implants are combined with imbedded language translators and high level Artificial Intelligence monitor software, than the initial problems of multilingual communication, data collection, targeting and information filtration can be resolved. These changes are the foundation for the new infrastructure of a super-literate civilization which will not only modify but completely restructure the very fibre of our society. The process is already in progress but the question is, are we ready for this kind of a future?

¹¹ Tiro's shorthand notation system was greatly expanded by Seneca with the addition of 5,000 new abbreviations and later by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who "put the finishing strokes to it by the addition of many 'notes' for Scripture proper names, and other Christian words, thereby rendering the work 'much more useful to the faithful.' "

¹ The Glagolitic alphabet ("glagolitsa", glagol=word) was created in 862 AD by two Byzantine missionaries named Cyril and Methodius.

² It was Saint Clement, a disciple of Cyril and Methodius, who created the Cyrillic alphabet based on the Glagolithic system. Saint Clement named the new alphabet, CYRIL, in honor of his mentor.

³ Direct-to-retinal scanning is already being used successfully in advanced experimental labs. Other neurological-bio-techniques using nano-technology and molecular computers are close to becoming a reality. The future is arriving much faster than the any one of us can possibly imagine.

A History of Shorthand, Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897)
Towards A History of Phonetics, R.E. Asher and Eugenie J.A. Henderson, Edinburgh University Press, 1981.
Histoire generale de la stenographie & de l'ecriture a travers, Albert Navarre

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