Universal Alphabetics

James Emmott

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This talk was delivered at Weather Reports: A Symposium on the Work of Steven Connor, organized by Joseph Brooker, which took place in the Keynes Library at 43 Gordon Square, Birkbeck, University of London, 6 July 2012.

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1. When Joe invited me to speak at this symposium, I knew that as one of Steve’s current PhD students, whose schedule for completion is tightening by the day, the most appropriate kind of contribution I could make would be to present something from my current research. So this is a version of a paper I gave recently in a different context, recycled and reframed in order to reflect a little more explicitly on some of the themes in Steve’s work that have exerted an influence on my own.

2. But first: stevenconnor.com. I am not the first today to say this, but one of the weird, and I should also say somehow wonderful, things about studying under Steve has been the rather unsettling feeling one experiences when that topic or conceptual concern one has been discussing and struggling over, striving endlessly and ineptly with notebook and keyboard to transform from chimera into reality, pops up on his website as the subject of an extensive exposition, nonchalantly erudite and lucid, and bearing every indication of being completely definitive. For longer than I’m quite comfortable to admit, this discovery is usually incredibly daunting and disheartening. But one eventually comes to one’s senses, and realizes that these humbling tracts actually open up spaces for thought, and provoke and insist upon further development, investigation, and elaboration — and one finally comes under the inevitable influence of the effects more accurately attributable to Steve: energizing, encouraging, inspirational. The sheer generosity and sense of the importance of an open intellectual commons that is displayed by the act of making this work so freely available online, with terrifyingly prolific regularity, is thus, I think, marvellously characteristic. Most of us continue to strive in vain to measure up. But we try. So here goes.

3.  One of the enduring Connorian themes in which I too declare an interest is the elusive and immersive world of sound, and its myriad manifestations and relations. Part of my PhD thesis explores how the phonographic and telephonic era inaugurated in the late 1870s is anticipated, perhaps indeed defined, by the flurry of activity in the field of linguistic and phonetic science in the preceding decades, and I want to use my time today to reflect on this subject.

4. By way of introduction, I want to consider for a moment a literary episode to which Steve has referred more than once recently — the heartbreaking passage in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1894–95) in which the autodidact Jude, wishing to ‘read the New Testament in the original’ in preparation for a life in the church, succumbs to a kind of magical thinking about the nature of linguistic translation.1 Acquiring a parcel of Latin and Greek grammars from the ‘quack physician’ Vilbert — among whose other objects of retail to Jude’s credulous village neighbours are his ‘golden ointment’, ‘life-drops’, and ‘those celebrated pills that infallibly cure all disorders of the alimentary system, as well as asthma and shortness of breath’ — Jude imagines that the books will provide for him a simple code, enabling the straightforward conversion of one language to another.

He concluded that a grammar of the required tongue would contain, primarily, a rule, prescription, or clue of the nature of a secret cipher, which, once known, would enable him by merely applying it, to change at will all words of his own speech into those of the foreign one. His childish idea was, in fact, a pushing to the extremity of mathematical precision what is everywhere known as Grimm’s Law, an aggrandizement of rough rules to ideal completeness. Thus he assumed that the words of the required language were always to be found somewhere latent in the words of the given language by those who had the art to uncover them; such art being furnished by the books aforesaid (p. 24).

Alas, the further inspection of these old, weathered volumes, soiled and scribbled over, ‘thumbed by hands possibly in the grave’ (p. 27), abruptly shatters his dream, as Jude

learnt for the first time that there was no law of transmutation as in his innocence he had supposed […]; but that every word in both Latin and Greek was to be individually committed to memory at the cost of years of plodding. […] This was Latin and Greek, then, was it; this grand delusion! The charm he had supposed in store for him was really a labour like that of Israel in Egypt. […] Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world (p. 25).

5.  For Steve, this is a capsule lesson in the lonely, slow, and unglamorous graft of writing and research, a process in which — as some of us have learned to our cost — most things of lasting scholarly value are hard won through patient and steady exertion, not by some sleight of hand that turns thought lazily and automatically into thesis. But Jude’s temporary delusion is also representative of a period that, as Steve himself has observed, is in fact ‘characterised by a kind of conversion mania, as inventors and engineers sought more and more ways in which different kinds of energy and sensory form could be translated into each other’. The fantasy of universal translation, invigorated by the development of new systems of phonetic alphabetics and the many attendant hypotheses of phonological change, is of a piece with this general enthusiasm in the later nineteenth century ‘for the idea of translated energies and outputs’.2 For what is fundamental to the imbricated spheres of phonography, telephony, and phonetic science is precisely their shared concern with the conversion and exchange of sensory and material forms. Phonography is literally the ‘writing of sound’, the transformation of aerial vibration into written inscription. Before and after Edison’s invention, turning sound into writing is a process of visualization, converting the invisible and ephemeral into the visible and fixed. Yet, more than this, pre-Edisonian phonography was intended to be not merely visible but also legible. The accelerated proliferation in the nineteenth century of new alphabetic systems developed for the purpose of rendering speech sounds in readable symbols renewed the age-old possibility that traditional alphabets might be superseded by a single, universal system, and that a new dawn of effortless intercultural conversation was at hand, galvanized by a parallel explosion in communications technologies that seemed tantalizingly ready to offer intermediary assistance.

6.  The German scholar Chevalier Bunsen was responsible for one of the most vigorous attempts to make this possibility a reality when, in 1854, he convened at his ambassadorial residence in London a group of leading philologists and phoneticians for a series of ‘Alphabetic Conferences’. The group focused on a problem that had exercised linguists 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’.3 The group gathered in 1854 directed their efforts towards 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’.4 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 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.5

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.

7.  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, yet the nineteenth century saw a notable surge in interest in the physiological investigation of speech, accompanied by the frequent appearance of organic and physiological linguistic metaphors.6 (Jacob Grimm himself described consonants as the ‘bones and skeleton’ of a language, and vowels the ‘blood of the organism’.) There was practical utility to the new focus on physiology. For it had long been recognized 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. ‘All writing’, wrote 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’.7

8.  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’.8 Moreover, the special distinction of Visible Speech, retained in modern-day phonetics, was that every part of a given symbol expresses an phonetically meaningful feature, in contrast to Roman script, which is littered with redundant, meaningless details (as for instance the extension of stalks above and below the general line, in b and g). This aspect of Bell’s system gave Visible Speech its further description as ‘self-interpreting letters’.

9.  Bell understood further that individual, separate parts of the human vocal apparatus were responsible for the various component parts of a whole speech sound. Visible Speech was described as a universal alphabet because it claimed to enumerate and symbolize every sound, linguistic and non-linguistic, that the vocal organs themselves were theoretically capable of producing. Where a sound required the simultaneous operation of more than one elementary action, the symbols were gathered into compounds, allowing even the most complicated sounds to be represented. The testimony of one contemporary reflects the dizzyingly extensive phonographic promise of the system:

A full sneeze, for example, is a complex operation: it comes among what are called inarticulate sounds; but Mr. Bell writes it down, and, for aught we know, could undertake to furnish every member of the house of Commons with a symbol representative of his own particular sneeze, as distinguished from those of all his colleagues.9

Indeed, the system of Visible Speech offered bespoke complex symbols for such inarticulate sounds as the ‘gentle sneer’, ‘smoker’s puff’, ‘stertorous breathing’, and three varieties of ‘snicker’ and ‘chuckle’.

10.  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 it, recording in his inaugural book on the system that

The Invention was without delay brought to the test of public experiments in the Writing of Languages. The Inventor’s Sons acquired a perfect knowledge of the System in a few days, and were enabled to pronounce, at sight, the most difficult and peculiar words that could be selected from the Eastern and other Languages; often involving combinations of sound which the readers had never heard before their own organs gave them utterance.10

Bell’s friend and colleague 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.11

11.  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’. The volunteers called to Melville Bell’s platform duly ‘uttered the most weird and uncanny noises’, and Graham 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’.12

12.  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.13 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 wrote. ‘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.14

13.  Melville Bell had envisaged one of the primary uses of Visible Speech to be the ‘TELEGRAPHIC communication of messages in any language, through all countries, without translation’, describing his intention as ‘macadamizing the linguistic highways between nations’.15 He notes that ‘Roman letters have been fully tried, and found sadly wanting in telegraphy’, though chooses not to explain how the fabulously complicated compound symbols of his own invention might be any more amenable to being transmitted. He claimed grandly that with Visible Speech the ‘foundation is laid, and the Linguistic Temple of Human Unity may at some time, however distant the day, be raised upon the earth’.16 It would be barely a decade before his own son would supplant the practical, technological aspect of this ambition with the invention of the telephone. Yet neither innovation addressed the glaring flaw in the dream of international communication through universal alphabetics. This is sharply dramatized by the younger Bell’s performances with the deaf-mute pupils, who in spite of apparently perfectly rendering highly complex strings of speech and song, have no real knowledge of the meaning of their words — their actions are purely physiological. A new system of phonetic representation does not, of course, replace the need to comprehend the underlying language. Visible Speech was simply a new medium for an existing message. However proficient two telegraphic operators might be in producing and deciphering strings of phonetic code, it seems ludicrously obvious that if the transmitting country uses English and the receiving country uses German, the convenience of a shared phonetic script hardly compensates for the lexical and grammatical distance between the two poles.

14.  That’s all I want to say about Visible Speech. But in closing, I want for a moment to draw a comparison between Steven Connor and Alexander Graham Bell. Because it occurs to me that, like the svengali teacher Bell, Steve has indeed inflected us all under his direction, and I am happy to report that I think we are all in fact quite conscious of this and pleased to be so. And so finally to borrow the title of one of his own distinctive disquisitions, on clapping, I’d like to ask that — with the help of your good hands — we say to Steve: thank you.


  1. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, ed. by Patricia Ingham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 16, 22. Further references are given after quotations in the text.
  2. Steven Connor, ‘Photophonics’ (2011) <http://www.stevenconnor.com/photophonics/> [accessed 8 July 2012] (para. 1) (emphasis added).
  3. 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.
  4. A. M. Bell, ‘Visible Speech’, Werner’s Magazine, 25 (1900), 213–21 (p. 213) (emphasis in original).
  5. A. M. Bell, ‘On Visible Speech’, pp. 1–2 (emphasis added).
  6. Ira Jean Hirsh, ‘A Brief History of the Systems Used to Represent English Sounds’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 29.3 (October 1943), 334–42 (p. 334).
  7. Alexander Melville Bell, undated lecture notes, p. 12 (emphasis added), AGB, Box 12.
  8. Bell, ‘Visible Speech’, p. 216.
  9. Quoted in A. M. Bell, Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics, or Self-Interpreting Physiological Letters, for the Writing of All Languages in One Alphabet (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1867), p. 29.
  10. A. M. Bell, Visible Speech, p. 19.
  11. Quoted in A. M. Bell, ‘Visible Speech’, p. 214.
  12. Alexander Graham Bell, ‘Prehistoric Telephone Days’, National Geographic Magazine, 41.3 (March 1922), 223–41 (p. 228).
  13. Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (London: Gollancz, 1973), p. 56.
  14. A. G. Bell, letter to A. M. Bell, Eliza Symonds Bell, and Carrie Bell, 1 December 1871, p. 1, AGB, Box 4.
  15. A. M. Bell, Visible Speech, pp. 21, ix.
  16. A. M. Bell, Visible Speech, p. 21.

Works Cited