Sunday, September 04, 2005

Bell's Visible Speech

In 1864 Melville Bell developed a universal system for writing speech sounds called Visible Speech.

Alternative Handwriting and Shorthand Systems.

"Although not intended as a replacement for longhand, this system provides a means of recording human speech sounds, and not just those used to make words, but virtually any speech sound! Alexander Melville Bell, whose more famous son was Alexander Graham Bell of telephone fame, developed Visible Speech in 1864 as a kind of universal alphabet that reduces all vocal sounds into a series of symbols. He was working with the deaf and wanted to illustrate for them how speech sounds are made by using a shorthand system based on anatomical positions within the human vocal tract.

It was the first system for notating the sounds of speech independent of any particular language or dialect. The International Phonetic Alphabet is based on Bell's work."

Further details can be read here. Morris Halle makes these comments about the original vision and eventual fall in to oblivion of Visible Speech.

"The prohibitive cost of casting the type was the reason for the replacement of Bell's alphabet with that of the International Phonetic Association (IPA), where sounds are represented by letters of the Roman alphabet and some diacritics available in most print shops. In fact, the IPA Principles expressly counsel writers against use of diacritics, wherever possible. The replacement of the Bell alphabet by that of the IPA had the unfortunate effect of obscuring and ultimately consigning to oblivion Bell's important discovery that the atoms of language are not the sounds, but the features."

Two features of this script attract my attention. It is presented as the first alphabet to represent speech apart from any particular language or dialect. In that sense it is a universal system for writing the sounds of speech. This is in direct contrast to other universal systems which are an attempt to communicate meaning without reference to sound.

See this review of Jill Lepore. A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, for an interesting discussion on the difference in the work of Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell. Gallaudet believed that sign langauge was a universal system for communicating meaning.

The other reason for my interest in Bell's Visible Speech, 1864, is that its physical characteristics, its shapes or glyphs, use the feature of rotation or orientation in four directions. It takes its place in the Utopian family of scripts that I was writing about earlier this year, a direct descendant from More's Utopian alphabet and part of the same family as Cree Syllabics, invented in 1841.

Addendum: In Visible Speech the different orientations indicate the place of articulation of a consonant. This reflects the featural nature of the script. This bears no resemblance to the manner in which syllabics represents speech, where the shape represents the consonant and the orientation represents the vowel. Further links Omniglot, Fonts .

My use of the term 'Utopian' scripts is idiosyncratic and reflects a group of shapes not a type of phonology, which is consistent with my interest in writing systems as concrete shapes or glyphs. The term Utopian also represents a philosophy of universalism and equity.


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