‘You Can Turn Her On as Often as You Like’: Performing Phonographic Physiology

James Emmott

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This talk was delivered at the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) conference, Nashville, TN, 6 November 2011.

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This talk explores some of the ways in which the workings of phonography and physiology become increasingly interrelated in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It reads contemporaneous physiological accounts alongside two illustrative cases of phonetic performance: the demonstrations of Alexander Melville Bell’s Visible Speech system in the 1860s, and George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, a wry satire on the culture of late nineteenth-century phonetic science, showing that both cases help us see how the fields of phonetics and physiology are mutually inflected in the period, and how they draw upon an understanding of articulatory performance that suggests that multiple, sustained impressions and movements record their combined, accumulated traces in the organic fabric of the body.

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1. In 1854, a conference of philologists and phoneticians was gathered by the German scholar Chevalier Bunsen. The group focused on a linguistic problem that had exercised individuals for centuries and which had become increasingly acute in the mid-nineteenth century. The problem, in short, was how to liberate phonography from orthography, or sound from spelling. Philologists, sensitive to the vocal variations within and between languages that were not adequately captured by conventional systems of spelling, sought to account for them with new systems of graphical representation. As the Scottish elocutionist Alexander Melville Bell put it in 1866, ‘a system of letters which, when learned in connection with any one language, would be vocalised with uniformity in every other language, has long been felt to be one of the great wants of the world.’1 The 1854 conference directed its efforts toward the exhaustive collation of the ways in which speech sounds were rendered in existing alphabets, in the hope that they might be reconfigured in novel, complex combinations. But as Bell notes, ‘a different line of investigation had been silently in progress for several years. This was to discover, from the organs of speech, all the modifications of which they were susceptible.’2 He explains:

Like many other experimenters I had long been engaged on the alphabetic problem; but I worked from different data, and by a totally different process, from those made use of by other explorers. Instead of going to languages to discover the elements of utterance, I went to the apparatus of speech, and, after many partial failures, but with gradual approximations to success, during a long series of years, I had the satisfaction ultimately of discovering, with demonstrable certainty, the complete physiological basis of speech, and of establishing an organic scale of sounds which could not but include all varieties, known and unknown. […] In this way an alphabet of incomparable simplicity has been produced, — an alphabet really available for all mankind, expressing, as it does, to the minutest shade of difference, every sound that can be formed by human organs.3

Since its symbols were drawn as direct visual analogues of the organs that formed this variety of sounds, Bell named his new phonographic alphabet Visible Speech.

2. As Ira Jean Hirsh has shown, work on the ‘representation of sounds from their physiological bases’ had been undertaken from as early as the seventeenth century.4 It had been recognized for at least as long that the relations of spelling to speech were both arbitrary and maddeningly inconsistent — the same sound could be expressed by multiple combinations of letters, and multiple sounds could share identical orthographic formulations — and the recourse to physiology was one way of adopting a common denominator for the representation of spoken language. But more importantly, the resurgence of physiological phonetics and the ways of thinking that surround Bell and Visible Speech in the mid-nineteenth century indicate suggestively the shifting fortunes of both fields of inquiry. I want in this paper to think through some of the tensions and contradictions that emerge from the suggestion that the voice might be apprehended both visibly and invisibly — in phonographic and physiological forms — and to explore some of the ways in which the workings of phonography and physiology become increasingly interrelated in the period following Bell’s alphabetic innovation.

3. ‘All writing’, wrote Melville Bell in the 1890s, ‘may be said to be, in a sense, visible speech; that is, it is a visible record of conventional language, but the system of Visible Speech is physiological, and records the actions of the mouth, irrespective of any particular employment of them.’5 With these words, Bell establishes the distinguishing feature of Visible Speech. His system would record not the arbitrary shapes of traditional letters, whose transformation into spoken utterance depended upon often illogical conventions. Visible Speech would record the ‘actions of the mouth’ in symbols derived from physiology — the lips open or closed, the soft palate depressed just so, the passage of air through the nose, and so on — such that any person following the directions it laid out in order to reproduce those actions would find that the vocal sounds associated with them would follow automatically. ‘Whatever the mouth can do, you can write’, Bell declared, ‘and whatever you can write, any student of the system can read — to whatever language the written matter may belong.’6

4. The boldness of Bell’s claim to have discovered the elusive ‘universal alphabet’ demanded verification, and it seems that Bell was only too pleased to find opportunities to demonstrate the system. Visible Speech turns out to have been peculiarly well suited to being demonstrated — indeed, performed. Alexander John Ellis gave an account of one such occasion conducted in London in the spring of 1864. Bell’s sons having been sent out of the room, Ellis ‘dictated slowly and distinctly the sounds which I wished to be written’. An expert phonetician and philologist, Ellis clearly revelled in devising ingenious ways to test the system’s limits. The sounds he dictated to Bell

consisted of a few words in Latin, pronounced first as at Eton, then as in Italy, and then according to some theoretical notions of how the Latins might have uttered them. Then came some English provincialisms and affected pronunciations. Suddenly German provincialisms were introduced. Then came discriminations of sounds often confused, from Polish, German, Dutch, Swiss, French and English; some Arabic, some cockney English, with an introduced Arabic guttural; some mispronounced Spanish, and a variety of shades of vowels and diphthongs.

Having transcribed the sounds into the symbols of Visible Speech, Bell recalled his sons to the room, and they articulated them according to the instructions. ‘The result’, Ellis reports, ‘was perfectly satisfactory’:

Mr. Bell wrote down my queer and purposely exaggerated pronunciations and mispronunciations, and delicate distinctions, in such a manner that his sons, not having heard them, so uttered them as to surprise me by the extremely correct echo of my own voice. Accent, tone, drawl, brevity, indistinctness, were all reproduced with surprising accuracy. Being on the watch, I could, as it were, trace the alphabet in the lips of the readers.7

5. There were many other such demonstrations. Alexander Graham Bell, who went on to immeasurably greater fame than his father as the putative inventor of the telephone, recalled a public lecture at which members of the audience were ‘invited to make any sorts of sound they desired’. ‘It was just as easy’, Graham Bell claimed, ‘for him to spell the sound of a cough, or a sneeze, or a click to a horse, as a sound that formed an element of human speech.’ The volunteers called to the platform duly ‘uttered the most weird and uncanny noises’, and Bell rendered them all with exactitude, including an obscure and difficult Sanskrit vowel which Bell gave correctly without having heard the sound before, and a ‘curious rasping noise that was utterly unintelligible’ to Bell, but recognized at once by the audience as the sound of sawing wood, ‘which had been given by an amateur ventriloquist as a test’.8

6. This method of phonographic reproduction was identified almost immediately by Melville Bell as being applicable to the teaching of deaf mutes, which was after all the condition into which his sons had effectively placed themselves in the Visible Speech performances. In 1868 Graham Bell took on two young deaf children as pupils. His biographer Robert V. Bruce tells us that

on the blackboard he sketched the profile of a face, including ‘the insides of the mouth’ (as he explained to the girls by finger spelling). Then he rubbed out all but the lower lip, the point, front, and back of the tongue, and the glottis. Those curved lines in their respective facings constituted the Visible Speech symbols for ‘back,’ ‘front,’ ‘point,’ ‘lip,’ and ‘voice.’

By the end of the first lesson, the girls had learned a dozen sounds.9 In November 1871, Bell undertook a demonstration of this applied method before an audience of ‘influential Educationalists’ in Boston, Massachusetts, and reported the proceedings in a letter to his parents. One of his pupils, Theresa Dudley, ‘read from the symbols words in German, French, and Zulu — introducing clicks.’ Bell then ‘invited the audience to dictate words in any language. Theresa Dudley did not fail in a solitary instance’, he reported. ‘The best of it’, he went on, ‘is that she does not know yet that she uttered words at all.’ In a further twist to the demonstration, Bell illustrated how Theresa could ‘vary the “timbre” of her voice at will’ — as he put it, how she could ‘inflect it mechanically’ under his direction. Following the motions of Bell’s hand, another pupil, apparently quite without knowing it, sang first a scale, then a rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’, and then a short extract by the eighteenth-century poet Robert Lloyd.10

7. The ‘education’ of the vocal organs and the correction of defective utterance had been the primary purpose of elocutionism for many decades, and this had long been the Bells’ family business.11 But Graham Bell’s work with these deaf pupils anticipates the Edison phonograph more than it emerges straightforwardly from an eighteenth-century legacy of vocal training. Bell’s pupils, as he himself keenly observes, are entirely unaware of their vocal achievements. Like his own automatic articulations of unheard sounds transcribed into the symbols of Visible Speech, Bell’s pupils perform mechanically. Theresa ‘does not know […] that she uttered words at all’. These vocal exchanges and transformations, then, are phonographic in the Edisonian sense, in that the device that emerges from Edison’s laboratory in the late 1870s and which adopts that name is a machine whose operation is wholly unconscious. The cylinder is set revolving and a stylus inscribes whatever acoustic vibrations set it in motion. When the instrument is set to replay what it has recorded, the stylus indifferently retraces its path along the grooves it made.

8. To think about this phonographic correspondence a little further, I want to turn, very briefly, to George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, a wry satire on the culture of late nineteenth-century phonetic science. The play focuses on a wager between two men that one of them can take an impoverished flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, and within six months pass her off as a duchess at a garden party. In order to do so, almost everything about her must be transformed: her clothes, social manner, gestures, and most importantly, perhaps, her voice, which must be rid of the impurities of its working-class dialect. The protagonist, Higgins, has been widely compared to a number of phoneticians of the period, among them Alexander Melville Bell. Shaw knew Bell through his nephew Chichester, who in turn may have been responsible for passing to Shaw a copy of his grandfather’s 1847 play The Bride, in which the valet Allplace is introduced as having been taken into the family of the unremarkable aristocrat Sir Cicero Pandect for the purpose of instructing them in proper manners. Allplace observes that before his arrival, ‘the entire establishment, including Sir Cicero himself, was confoundedly vulgar’, remarking to a fellow servant that ‘polishing a prosy lawyer into a tolerable baronet is a task to break a man’s back’.12 The resemblance to Pygmalion is self-evident. But I want to think less about these plays’ focus on elocutionism and social transformation, than about how Pygmalion is suffused with the imagery of phonographic recording and refashioning.

9. The play opens with Higgins transcribing and exactly rearticulating Eliza’s ‘Lisson Grove lingo’ by means of his own ‘universal alphabet’.13 Presently Eliza appears in Higgins’s Wimpole Street laboratory, a room arrayed with a variety of phonetic instruments, including a phonograph, singing flames, tuning-forks, and a ‘life-size image of half a human head, showing in section the vocal organs’.14 Upon her arrival, Higgins remarks to his collaborator Pickering:

This is rather a bit of luck. I’ll shew you how I make records. We’ll set her talking; and I’ll take it down first in Bell’s visible Speech; then in broad Romic; and then we’ll get her on the phonograph so that you can turn her on as often as you like with the written transcript before you.15

Higgins’s remark somewhat conceals the multiple purpose of their endeavour. The objective is not merely to transfer Eliza’s voice to the phonograph so the men can hear her voice at will — either in order to demonstrate the apparatus to Pickering or to diagnose what needs fixing in Eliza’s dialect. More than this, Eliza must herself become a phonograph. For she does not adopt the tones of another voice as a temporary trick. Her very person is reshaped, reprogrammed, by the multiple articulatory impressions that her months-long re-education involves. ‘You have no idea’, Higgins says to his wife in Act III, ‘how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her.’16 The creation of a new speech depends on the recreation of the person. Like a wax phonograph cylinder, Eliza is physiologically erased, re-recorded, and replayed. Her new way of speaking becomes ‘unconscious’, because it has been seared permanently into her body — recalling, perhaps, the etymological origin of the word ‘recording’ in the notion of learning by heart. The process of Eliza’s vocal education, in other words, is not simply social or abstractly psychological, but fundamentally material and physiological. In this sense the play is very much in keeping with the sculptural theme of the original myth against which Pygmalion is quite deliberately placed.

10. The mid- to late-nineteenth century saw a cluster of writing on physiology and memory that deals with some of these issues, and which helps to contextualize this phonographic discourse. Prominent among these writers is the philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, who, in citing approvingly the Belgian physiologist Joseph Delboeuf’s claim that ‘the mind is an album of phonographic recordings’, suggested in 1880 that just as the ‘resonances of the voice are transferred to a needle’ in the case of the phonograph,

it may well be that in a similar way invisible lines are incessantly engraved into the cells of the brain, lines that constitute the beddings for the nervous currents. When, after some time, the current happens to encounter one of these previously formed beds, through which it has already passed before, it engages itself in them once again. Consequently the nervous cells resonate as they did the first time, and this comparable resonance corresponds psychologically to a sensation or a thought that is similar to the forgotten sensation or thought.17

Guyau’s invocation of vibration in the term ‘resonance’ is not accidental. Delboeuf’s claim emerged from a broader argument proposing, as Laura Otis puts it, that ‘memories were changes in patterns of molecular vibration, just as a stone thrown into a pond affects the wave pattern created on the surface by stones that have been thrown in shortly before it’.18 Memories, then, are composite phenomena — ‘accumulated capital’ in Delboeuf’s phrase — originating in the vibratory properties widely thought at that time to be fundamental to the nature of physiological matter. This notion of accumulation is foreshadowed in Herbert Spencer’s 1863 Principles of Biology, in which Spencer claims that all physiological development is a process of combination and compounding, in his molecular focus on how the ‘mutual play of forces […] produces a difference in the form which the aggregate of them assumes’.19 This notion of aggregation is drawn implicitly from the composite form of multiple vibrations suggested by the metaphor of wave patterns in water, and is echoed by the materiality of the phonograph groove which records vibratory multiplicity in a single resultant form.

11. In Delboeuf and Guyau’s reflections, then, the phonograph provides a material analogue for a way of thinking about physiology, articulation, and memory that had been in development for some years. In 1869, the British physician H. Charlton Bastian published a series of articles addressing the question of what he called the ‘physiology of thinking’. For Bastian, thinking can be considered virtually synonymous with language. His premise is that thoughts are formed and exchanged in language, and that language is fundamentally an art of articulation. ‘We may ask then’, Bastian writes,

whether, in using language as a vehicle for thoughts, words recur or are revived primarily as ideas of sound, or as revived remembrances of articulatory efforts. Are they ever, in fact, primarily revived as ‘suppressed articulations’?20

For Bastian, an instance of language-as-thought is both an acoustic event and an physiological configuration of the human vocal apparatus. Bastian suggests that what we ultimately bring to mind in this process of mental recurrence or revival is the latter: a memory resides not merely as an abstract datum, but as written into the organic fabric of the body. In terms later echoed by Guyau, Bastian describes his account of how sensory impressions ‘pass along definite routes to certain parts of the cerebral hemispheres’.21 The recollection of these impressions revives ‘precisely the same parts of the hemispheres’ that had been activated by the original event, and the ‘same nerve-fibres, and same nerve-cells’ are ‘called into activity as were previously concerned in the perception of the original impression’.22

12. Bastian’s article series coincides with the appearance of the field of psychophysics, a melding of approaches to psychology and physiology that had been steadily advancing since the so-called ‘1847 group’ of physiologists was established in Germany around the figures of Carl Ludwig and Hermann von Helmholtz. Other psychophysicists made even more explicit connections to the physiology of language and phonetics. Theodate L. Smith, writing for the American Journal of Psychology in 1896, derives an article-length treatise on ‘muscular memory’ directly from an example in the work of Alexander Graham Bell. Smith reports the case of Edith Thomas, a young pupil of Bell’s who had been deaf and blind from the age of four, and who had become increasingly mute since then. When Edith was nine years old, Bell tested her abilities to reproduce vocal movements by means of motor imitation. Smith reports:

She succeeded fairly well, pronouncing the letter K, which offers peculiar difficulty to deaf mutes, with unusual distinctness. When asked to repeat the letter some hours later, she called with an almost perfect enunciation, ‘Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.’ Investigation revealed the fact that when at the age of four years the gradual loss of speech had followed that of sight and hearing, the last intelligible word spoken by the child was ‘Kitty.’ The reproduction was unconscious, the child having absolutely no idea of what she had done. It was not, then, a reproduction of the word as heard or associated with something, but of a muscular movement, which, latent for five years, was recalled by the suggestion of a similar movement. This incident suggested that possibly, under normal conditions, the muscles play a greater part in our memories than we are accustomed to assign to them.23

The notion of muscle memory is familiar to us today, but Smith discloses here a deep link between physiological movement, habit, and memory formation that was a largely new discovery of the physiology of this period. As he puts it, ‘every teacher has observed children busily moving their tongue and lips during the memorizing of a lesson’, but they do so, he claims, ‘without thinking that the movement was not a mere habit, but a real aid in the process of memorizing.’24

13. To conclude: I want to suggest that these accounts, read alongside the Bell performances and Pygmalion, provide provocative germinal formulations of what I want to call ‘phonographic physiology’, a mode of thinking in which the material mind–body is figured as a read–write device, eight years prior to the emergence of the first technical instrument to perform such operations. Alexander Melville Bell’s insight and tenacity in pursuing the development of a phonetic alphabet based not on arbitrary symbols but on the movements of the human vocal apparatus prefigures an explosion of physiological inquiry attentive to the performative aspects of the process of memorization. Pygmalion offers a collapsing of phonetics into the suggestive notions of resculpting and reshaping. Both cases help us see how the fields of phonetics and physiology are mutually inflected in the period, and how they draw upon an understanding of articulatory performance that suggests the ways in which multiple, sustained impressions and movements record their combined, accumulated traces in the organic fabric of the body.


  1. Alexander Melville Bell, ‘On Visible Speech: or, a Universal and Self-Interpreting Physiological Alphabet’, p. 1, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (hereafter AGB), Box 15.
  2. A. M. Bell, ‘Visible Speech’, Werner’s Magazine: A Magazine of Expression, 25 (1900), pp. 213–221 (p. 213) (emphasis original).
  3. A. M. Bell, ‘On Visible Speech’, pp. 1–2 (emphasis added).
  4. Ira Jean Hirsh, ‘A Brief History of the Systems Used to Represent English Sounds’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 29.3 (October 1943), pp. 334–42 (p. 334).
  5. A. M. Bell, lecture notes [n.d.], p. 12, AGB, Box 12 (emphasis added).
  6. A. M. Bell, ‘Visible Speech’, p. 216.
  7. Alexander John Ellis, quoted in A. M. Bell, ‘Visible Speech’, p. 214.
  8. Alexander Graham Bell, ‘Prehistoric Telephone Days’, National Geographic Magazine, 41.3 (March 1922), pp. 223–41 (p. 228).
  9. Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), p. 56.
  10. Alexander Graham Bell, letter to A. M. Bell, Eliza Symonds Bell, and Carrie Bell, 1 December 1871, p. 1, AGB, Box 4.
  11. Among many other examples, see David Charles Bell, The Art of Speech and Theory of Elocution (Dublin: McGlashan and Gill, 1845), p. iii.
  12. Alexander Bell, The Bride, a Play, in Five Acts (London: W. J. Cleaver, 1847), Act I, Scene I.
  13. George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts (London: Constable and Company, 1929), Act I.
  14. Shaw, Pygmalion, Act II.
  15. Shaw, Pygmalion, Act II.
  16. Shaw, Pygmalion, Act III.
  17. Jean-Marie Guyau, ‘“The Origin of the Idea of Time” By Jean-Marie Guyau’, in Guyau and the Idea of Time, ed. by John A. Michon, Viviane Pouthas, and Janet L. Jackson (Amsterdam: North–Holland, 1988), pp. 93–148 (p. 118).
  18. Laura Otis, Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), p. 17.
  19. Quoted in E. Ray Lankester, ‘Perigenesis v. Pangenesis — Haeckel’s New Theory of Heredity’, Nature, 14.350 (13 July 1876), pp. 235–38 (p. 236).
  20. H. Charlton Bastian, ‘On the “Muscular Sense”, and on the Physiology of Thinking’, British Medical Journal, 1.435 (1 May 1869), pp. 394–96 (p. 394).
  21. Bastian, ‘“Muscular Sense”’, p. 394.
  22. Bastian, ‘“Muscular Sense”’, p. 394.
  23. Theodate L. Smith, ‘On Muscular Memory’, American Journal of Psychology, 7.4 (July 1896), pp. 453–90 (pp. 454–55) (emphasis added).
  24. Smith, ‘On Muscular Memory’, p. 455 (emphasis added).

Works Cited