Phonotypy and Phonography, or Speech-Printing and Speech-Writing

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PHONOTYPY AND PHONOGRAPHY,

OR SPEECH-PRINTING AND SPEECH-WRITING.

By S. P. Andrews.

The subject Explained for the Readers of this Magazine.

For the sake of those who may wish to have an intelligent idea of the subject at large, so as to satisfy their own curiosity, or to be able to speak without hesitation or blunder of a topic that is beginning to attract a good deal of the public attention, I will in this article explain, as far as practicable, the ground-principles of the Reform, and shall endeavor to render the explanation so simple that a child may understand it. I am led to this in part by the strange misconceptions and laughable blunders that have sometimes been witnessed on the part of persons who have only heard in general terms of the wonders that Phonotypy and Phonography do or will perform, without having seen any proper explanation of what they really are. I have met with some who have fancied, because Phonography is said to be a means of transferring thought to paper with the rapidity of speech, that it is something like the Daguereotype, which paints a picture by the rays of light, and never dreamed that such marvellous writing is done with a goose-quill or steel pen, on actual paper. Others have seemed to suppose, because a reform is spoken of in connection with our language, that we are all to be required to speak after some new fashion, or at least to pronounce some of our words differently from what we now do.

All this is misapprehension. There is no magic in the matter, and no change at all is to take place in the language itself. The changes only affect the manner of writing and printing the words, while the words remain the same as before—in somewhat the same way that time may be marked on the face of a dial by a shadow, by the running of sand through a glass, by a good gold repeater, or by them all at once, and still time itself undergo no change. Speech is one thing, and the manner of representing it on paper is another and quite a different thing. In order, however, to find out the best way of representing it, it is necessary to examine it a little closely, so as to see precisely what it is. Speech has a meaning, also; but this meaning is a different thing from speech itself, and with this we have at present nothing to do. If we hear a foreigner speak, whose language we do not understand, his speech has no meaning at all for us, and yet he speaks. Now when he speaks, or when we speak, the thing that we really do, is to make sounds or noises rapidly, one after the other, with the mouth. But these sounds or noises are not all alike They are constantly changing; and if we observe closely, we shall see that this difference comes from the fact that they are made at different places in the mouth, or by putting the parts of the mouth—as the lips or tongue, for example—into different positions. Thus, when we say pie, the first thing we do is to bring the two lips close together, and press them against each other :—and nobody can say this word with his mouth open. But if instead of this word we say thy, the lips are not brought together at all, but we begin by putting the point of the tongue just between the edges of of the upper and lower teeth.

From this example it is obvious, that the mouth is an instrument, or piece of musical machinery, for making sounds by different touches or applications of its parts, which are generally called organs of speech. We ought, then, to find out how many touches this instrument has, if it is our object to study the nature of all the music which it is capable of making—and, at any rate, to find the number which it actually uses in playing that particular tune which we call the English language. This we can do by attending carefully while we speak, for a short time, inasmuch as we are constantly repeating each of these touches.

The result will be found to be, that there are only three actual touches that we make with the two lips, producing the three sounds which are generally ropresented by the letters p, b and m, as at the beginning o( pie, by and my; and that two others are made by putting the upper teeth upon the lower lip, usually represented by f and v, as in the beginning of the words fie and vie, and so on.

It will be seen that in each of the words used as examples, there is another sound besides the one made by the lips, and which follows it and completes the word. This last sound, which is the same as the word eye, is in some of those words represented by ie., and in the others by y; and it diners from the first in the fact thut it is not made by a perfect touch of the organs, but by merely putting them in a certain position and breathing through them with the voice. This sort of sounds is called vowels, while those made by the perfect touches are called consonants.

Now it appears by a thorough investigation, that in speaking the English language, we use no less than thirty six of these touches, and partial touches or shapings of the organs; in other words, we make that number of vowel and consonant sounds. The true idea of representing the language would then be, to have a letter in the alphabet for each of these sounds, and to use the same letter invariably for the same touch or shaping of the organs; and in that case spelling, or the right manner of making up a written word, would be as plain as the right manner of putting the Arabic figures together to represent any given number: and besides this, the letters so put together would make known the precise pronunciation of each word. If this were the case, the whole business of teaching a child to read, spell and write, (except, in the last case, the manual business of making the letters,) would consist in pointing out the mechanism of the mouth, with its different touches and shapings, and the sounds made by. them, together with the letters that represent them. The whole of this, except the period necessary to learn the alphabet itself, would not require a week's time; whereas it now generally costs eight or ten years of more or less continuous labor in our schools, to learn these arts—and when learned, they are so imperfect that nobody can tell how to pronounce a word correctly by seeing it written. The reason of this imperfection is, that we have not enough letters in our alphabet to represent the sounds in our language, and that we do not always represent the same sound by the same letter—nor by any one letter, but frequently use two, three or four letters for one sound. We have not space for many examples; but the matter will be understood by reference to the case above, where precisely the same sound is represented by eye, ic and y, in different words, all of which must be learned arbitrarily, and a future to know it is stigmatized as bad spelling. Again, for the first sound in the word thy—that is, the sound produced by the touch described above, as putting the tongue between the edges of the tipper and lower teeth—there is no letter at all in our alphabet, and we use for it the two letters t and h. But these letters represent different touches or shapings of the organs, as will be felt if we pronounce tie and high, and observe that we have not brought the point of the tongue near the edges of the teeth; and so in a multitude of other cases, showing our language to be so badly represented, that it can hardly be said—if we may use a Hibernian expression—to be represented at all.

Phonotypy is simply a correction of all this irregularity, by adding a few new letters to the alphabet, rejecting two or three that are useless, (like the q, which always sounds like k) and then always using the same letter for the same sound. It may be learned in half an hour, by any person who can now read. But although it is so simple a change, its importance can hardly be estimated, as respects the cause of general education. Among its minor advantages, it saves about one fifth of the space and cost of all printed matter in books, newspapers, &c.

Phonography has a different alphabet, used only in writing by the pen, corresponding precisely to the phonotypic alphabet, but employing letters or characters so simple in their shapes that we need only move the hand once to make any one of them. Let the reader take up his pen and make the letter m or w, and he will find that he has moved his hand as many as six times in making either letter. Now, if each of these movements had made a whole letter, he would have written a long word in the same length of time. By applying this principle, and adding the saving to what is gained in Phonotypy, the result is, that by Phonography a person may write almost six times as fast as by the old method—which is equal to the rapidity of ordinary speech. Phonographic writing, among those who understand it, is used for correspondence, and all the purposes, in fine, for which the old style of writing is used.



  • Stephen Pearl Andrews, “Phonotypy and Phonography, or Speech-Printing and Speech-Writing,” Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement 1, no. 1 (January 1847): 55-60.