Saturday, January 12, 2019


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Síle Seoighe recently interviewed John Cleese who commented on the unpronounceability of her name to a stranger.
He has a thing about names, and asks Seoige about her surname. “It’s impossible to pronounce. Why don’t you Irish spell your names properly?” She’s Julie Joyce, she tells him, if it makes it easier.
My mother had shorthand. I'm not sure to what extent it served her in her pre-marital career, working in Monaghan's of Rialto and subsequently in a Department of Social Welfare Employment Exchange. In her day it was a sort of basic qualification for secretarial work and I think she shared this accomplishment with none other than W.T.Cosgrave.

It did serve her well, though, in her role as a mother. We were in awe of her ability to take down the words of songs from the radio. It was nearly like being on the internet which, of course, wasn't invented for another thirty years.

So what's the connection between all that jumble of material above? Bear with me.

The following material is taken from two separate posts I have done in the past. Cleese's question brought them both to mind and they are related.

The first relates to George Bernard Shaw's attempts to simplify the writing of English based on phonetics.

[SPOILER ALERT] The second deals with a language which has already done this.

Phonetic English

GBS took a great interest in the English alphabet and offered a significant prize for anyone who could come up with a phonetic alphabet to replace the existing rather ramshackle arrangements.

As someone who has tried to teach English to foreigners (who else), I have every sympathy with this approach. English pronounciation is appallingly difficult to learn and can be perfected only by rote. Even then it is rampant with distinctions based on location (an enriching element) and on class (a disgrace).

A competition was announced in 1957 and 450 entries were received in the course of 1958. No single entry was deemed winner and the prize was shared by four contestants. Penguin Books published a version of Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" in parallel text as an aid to learning the new alphabet.

Click on image for a larger version

You covered up the new text, translated the standard English text, and then compared your results with the "official" version. I had a go at it and was quite impressed at its economy and consistency. However, try as I did, I could never quite get it quite right. I found this very discouraging until I realised that the phonetic alphabet reflected the phonetics of the author or standard-maker and his pronounciation of certain words were not the same as mine. Standard English spelling has now been accepted as representing a range of different pronounciations and introducing a new standard would open up a pandora's box.

The new alphabet never caught on and one of the contestants described it as "a slimming down of written English to the point of anorexia". You can go into more detail here or here.
By the time that his vision of a new alphabet for the English language had been realised and printed, George Bernard Shaw was dead. A Nobel-winning playwright, critic and polemicist, he spent half a century exasperated by how English was written and campaigning for its reform. It would be twelve years after his ashes were scattered before people might have found — innocuous amongst the shelves of their local libraries — that strange biscript edition of Androcles and the Lion: its pages now creamed, dried and softened with age; every other page inscrutable and seemingly printed with tinned spaghetti. Shavian.

Shavian was to be an ideal alphabet: easier to read, write and print and accurately reflecting speech. It is a rare example not only of a new writing system, but of one that was adapted for 20th-century printing technology. Along with the alphabet itself, its designer, Kingsley Read, would be responsible for three hot-metal fonts for the printing of Androcles, and another for a small number of typewriters that could be ordered, for a time, from the Imperial Typewriter Company.

For constructed writing systems, let alone constructed writing systems of the 20th century, Shavian enjoyed a rare degree of technical implementation, skilled execution and, thanks to its association with Shaw, public attention. But despite all that it was a failure. Shaw’s dream of replacing Latin with a writing system that was scientific, rational, efficient, ergonomic and so much more, may have been made almost real, but all the lead, tin and antimony, all the ink pressed into paper to make it real wasn’t quite enough. Shavian is now largely relegated to the cupboard of typographic curiosities.

Cad is ainm duit?

Once upon a time, I went to an economic summit in Amman, Jordan, organised by the Crown Prince, who was at the time the heir apparent to King Hussein.

At the registration desk, the man filling out my id badge (above) asked me my name.
I told him. "Again please" was the reply.
I told him again. "Again please" was the reply.
I told him again. "Again please" was the reply.
I told him again.

I was just beginning to think this guy wasn't really with it when he appeared to give up, completed my id badge and handed it to me.

On reflection I thought, well, my name is in Irish and that would not have been an everyday experience for him. And then I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Much later, I was at a reception hosted by the Irish Consul. I was quite surprised when people coming up to me pronounced my name properly without having to be told. That wouldn't happen at home in a fit. In Dublin I have been called all sorts of things, up to and including "Mr. Gruber".

I really didn't know what to make of it all until much later when I mentioned this to the Irish Ambassador. He was not in the least surprised by the whole thing. He explained that Arabic is written phonetically. Then it all made sense. The man filling out my badge was actually zeroing in on the precise pronounciation of my name and my subsequent experience at the reception passed him with flying colours.

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