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A biography of Isaac Pitman (inventor of phonography) online

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Koyal Commission of inquiry ; and I certainly think that
our Government will be unable to refuse the application.
The topic given me to consider is ' the loss of time caused
by the current spelling.' Now that loss of time occurs
both in learning to read, and to spell and write. I want
to lay before you, in the ten minutes allowed to me, the
grounds of the difficulty in the two arts of reading and
spelling, and why the spelling is so much more difficult
than the reading.

" Everybody knows that we have six vowels (including
y, — a, e, i, o, u, y, — and these six vowels represent, in the
present spelling, twenty-eight sounds. A represents six
sounds, four of them in large classes of words ; e repre-
sents four sounds, two of them in very large classes of
words ; i represents four sounds ; o represents seven sounds,
four of them in large classes of words ; and u represents
seven sounds. Now, if we add to these the sounds repre-
sented, not by single letters, but by two put together, such
as double a in my own name, Lsaac ; ao in the word gaol ;
eti, ee, ei, ae, au, and so on, we get, with the twenty conso-
nants and six vowels, a total of 108 letters, which represent
269 different sounds in the various words of the language;
so that there is a choice of about three sounds for every
letter, between which the pupil has to choose before he can
pronounce a word. I Avill only take one out of the long-
list before me as an illustration of this. I will take that


very common combination ea. The child, in reading, conies
to the word head. Well, we will suppose he knows the
word to be pronounced hed. Perhaps in the very next line
he comes to the same combination of letters, but with a
b instead of h, and, of course, he calls it bed, but is cor-
rected instantly, ' No, it is bead.' Then he comes upon
another word, I-e-a-d, but does not know what to call it,
whether leed or led. Then he has to be told that it is
sounded leed in one sense and led in another. He must
say ' a pound of led,' but ' I leed you.' Now remove the
/ from the word, and put m instead ; what must he say —
med ? no, meed. Now put .st in place of m, and it is changed
to sted. Put an r at the commencement of ead; now he
has two sounds again for two different words — read, as a
verb in the present tense, 7'ead (red) in the past tense.
And he must commit all these to memory. Next take the
letter ^ as a final sound, and put ea before it — eat; prefix
h — that is regular; now instead of h put Mr — threet? no,
thret. Now take another termination, th, as in death, a
word which he knows very well; remove (/and put wr —
reth? no, reeth. Now take a\vay the wr, and put br —
breeth ? no, breth. Thus the ])upil is tossed backward and
forward with almost every word in the language. Take
the termination st, as in beast; put an r after the b —
breest ? no brest. H-e-a-r-d, heard (pron. herd) ; take away
the h, and put b — berd ? no, beerd. Take the word Jieart ;
remove the t, and put d — hard? no ; the Scotch may say,
' I hard such a thing;' but we say, ^ I herd such a thing.'
I select only a few examples to show where the difficulty
lies. Take the word earth ; put the aspirate before it, and
it is not herth, but Jiarth, a fire-})lace. We will suppose
the pupil now to meet with the combination ea in a word


of two syllables, as in real. He then meets with realm,
and probably calls it ree-alm. It is the reproach of our
language that no man, however educated he may be, is able
to pronounce a single word of English on seeing it in a
book, if he has never heard it pronounced. I have only
to-day become acquainted with the sound of the name of
this gentleman, (Mr Croad), whom I have known by cor-
respondence for some time. I could write his name but I
could not speak it. I called him Mr Crow-ad, just as we
sound oa in 3Ioab, thinking it more aristocratic to give
him two syllables than one. I now learn that his name
is Mr Crode.

" The converse of the statement which I have made as
to reading and pronunciation is true as to writing — that
no person can spell an English Avord, however well he
knows the sound, if he has never seen it written. The
truth is, we are, as to letters, blind, and as to sounds, deaf.
We see the letters Avith the outward eye, but we do not see
anything with the inward eye corresponding to them.
We hear the sounds of a word with the outward ear, but
we do not hear inwardly and associate the real sound of
the word with its representation. This one combination,
or letter, ea, followed by a consonant in the same syllable,
which I have instanced, occurs in 110 of our monosyllables.
In how many other words it occurs I cannot say. But the
pronunciation of every one of these words, and of every
other word in the language, has to be iixed in the memory
before the child can read. That is one illustration of the
fact that the letters of our alphabet represent 269 sounds
which is an average of three to each letter. I have excluded
all single anomalous words. Now I must take two minutes
for the spelHng question, although my ten minutes are


up. The phase of the question I have previously con-
sidered is, the difficulty of reading. The difficulty of
spelling is not as three to one, but as seven to one. Thus,
there is the sound u in the familiar word beauty, a word
which we will suppose the child knows, and he wishes to
spell it. Well, he has to choose between seven modes of
representation existing in other words bearing the same
sound of u. Of coarse, he will begin by trying to spell it
with the single letter u, as buty. No. In the next place
he may try beuty. " No, you are wrong ; such spelling
will not pass." He knows the word dew. " I think I
have it now," bewty. " No, it won^t do, try again."
View may occur to him, so he tries biewty. " No, try
again ; don't give it up." A suit of clothes suggests
buity. " No, wrong again." Then the teacher has to
tell him b-e-a-u-t-y, beauty ; and that way of spelling the
word has to be fixed on the pupil's memory. Such is a
very familiar illustration of the difficulty, first of learning
to read — that is, in choosing between the diffi^rent sounds
which the letters represent in other words — and the diffi-
culty of learning to spell, — that is, in choosing between
the diflPerent representatives in other words of the very
same sound that is required to be expressed. 1 will con-
clude b}^ gi\ ing you the mathematical proof of my state-
ment, that the difficulty of reading is as 3 to 1 that is, of
choosing between three sounds as to which must be employed
in interpreting every letter of the alphabet ; and the diffi-
culty of spelling is as 7 to 1 as to every sound in the
language. I gave you the number of letters : 20 conso-
nants, 6 vowels, and 82 additional letters represented by
combinations — total, 108 signs. Divide the 108 signs by
the 38 sounds of the English language and the quotient


will be 3 within a fraction. Now for the spelling. The
dividend here must be the meanings or pronunciations given
to these 108 letters; and we find that they have 269
meanings, which, divided by the 38 real sounds of the
language, gives the quotient as 7."

Among the other speakers were Mr H. H. Butterfill,
the Rev. R. Wells Whitford, Sir Charles Reed, Mr Hale,
Dr Richard Morris, the Rev. Castle Clery, Mr Tito
Pagliardini, Mr W. Storr, Dr Gladstone, and the Rev,
John Curwen. A public meeting was held in the evening,
which was addressed by well-known spelling reformers, at
which resolutions were passed in favor of an improve-
ment in English orthography.

These were not the only public proceedings in connec-
tion with the Spelling Reform movement, in 1877; for at
a meeting of the Social Science Association, held in Lon-
don, on the 5th February that year, papers on the subject
were read by INIr E. Jones and Mr W. Storr. These pro-
ceedings were reported at considerable length in the news-
papers of the day, and many leaders and magazine articles
were devoted to the subject. Many of the leading news-
papers spoke favorably of the movement, and even the
Times went so far as to recommend that children should
be, at any rate, taught to read and write in the first three
standards on " the easy phonetic plan.''



It was not until early in the ibllowing year^ 1878, that
the Spelling Reform question in connection with Board
School teaching was brought before the Government. On
the 18th of January, the Lord President of the Council
(the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) and Viscount
Sandon received a deputation at the Privy Council from
the London and many other School Boards, and anotlier
from the Society of Arts. The deputations consisted of
about a hundred gentlemen from different parts of the
country, and representing various educational bodies. Mr
Pitman, his brother Frederick, Mr Ellis, Sir Charles
Reed, Dr Gladstone, Mr Rathbone, M.P. (representing
the School Board), and Mr Richard, M.P. (who expressed
the bewilderment of the Welsh people on the subject of
English spelling) were among the company present. The
various speakers were listened to with great attention, and
the Lord President promised, in the stereotyped form, but
with great courtesy, that he would lay before the Cabinet
the views that had been communicated to him. Nothin";
further came of the matter. No Royal Commission was
appointed ; but the subject had been thoroughly venti-
lated, and a great deal done to clear the ground for future
action in the same direction.

In the meantime. Phonography was making headway
among educationalists and the general public. The value
of shorthand in connnereial life was becoming daily more
and more recognized. The Society of Arts in 1876 had


introduced it in its annual programme of examinations^ held
simultaneously at different centres throughout the country,
and appointed Mr Frederick Pitman as examiner. No
special system was prescribed. The candidates were per-
mitted to use any system, but were recommended to learn
Phonography. The subject still forms part of the exam-
ination for which Certificates are given by the Society,
and it is one of the most popular among candidates, book-
keeping being the only subject for which there are more
annual entries. Phonogi*aphy is also a subject of exam-
ination with the Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Insti-
tutes and the Yorkshire Union of Institutes. With the
candidates for examination by the former, it is the most
favorite subject, the entries for examination in 1890
being 708.

The presentation of the memorial to the Lord President
was soon followed (in 1879) by the formation of the
Spelling Reform Association in London, u.nder auspices
which seemed to promise a successful result. Mr Pitman,
of course joined its ranks, and occasionally assisted in its
deliberations. Among the other well known men who
allied themselves with the Society were Lord Tennyson,
Professor Max Miiller, Professor Sayce, Dr. J. H. Glad-
stone, Mr A. J. Ellis, Charles Darwin, Dr. 11. G. Latham,
Professor Skcat, Mr Westlakc, Q.C., Dr. Charles Mackay,
Professor Candy, M.A., Uev. John llodgers, Dr. Hunter, etc.

It is not necessary to write the history of the S])elling
llcform Association in connection with the biography of
Mr Pitman ; but it cannot be passed o\er. Its career,
which promised to Ijc a brilliiuit one, was short and un-
satisfactory. During the first year or two of its existence
it was the means of drawing a good deal of attention to


the question of a reformed orthography. It published a
number of pamphlets and leaflets, and held a i'cw public
meetings at which addresses were delivered by men of
great distinction. But its efforts were a good deal frittered
away in academic discussions on the minutiae of Phonetics,
instead of being directed to more practical work. As in
the case of most reforms, great differences of opinion
existed as to the precise manner in which phonetic spelling
should be carried out ; and notwithstanding the appoint-
ment of endless sub-committees with the view of reconciling
these differences, no definite line of action was taken ; and,
after a few years of fitful and spasmodic effort, the Associa-
tion collapsed. Though several attempts were made to
galvanize it into renewed activity they were svholly nn-
suecessful. Meanwhile i\Ir Pitman was devoting a con-
siderable proportion of the increasing profits of his short-
hand works to the advocacy of phonetic spelling, and
further experiments with new and old types ; gratuitously
distributing an immense quantity of literature on the sub-
ject from his own press. In 1879 he lost the benefit of
the co-operation of Sir Walter Trevelyan, who died at the
ripe age of eighty-two, having been President of the Pho-
netic Society and an ardent suj)porter of ]Mr Pitman for
a period of twenty years.

In the following year, 1881, in his Annual Address to
the Phonetic Society, Mr Pitman drew attention to the
increasing })ublic interest nianii'ested in the reform, and
even took enconra2;ement from the adverse criticisms of
his opponents, whose very violence he regarded as an indi-
cation of the importance of the movement. The Spectator
had just published a splenetic article on the subject, in
which it declared that Mr IMtman and his followers were


" guilty of as flat burglary as ever frighted Dogberry,"
" Nothing/' said the writer, " has ever astonished us more
than the fact that the foremost philologist in England^
Professor Max Miiller, should find it in his heart to thrust
the segis of his great name and authority in front of this
forgetive felony." These and similar absurdities only
stimulated Mr Pitman to renewed exertion, in which he
found abundant su])port from other quarters. In Scribner
and the Century, for example, several articles appeared
strongly advocating phonetic spelling ; and a number of
American newspapers had adopted the " five rules " (for
the omission of silent letters, etc.) recommended by the
American Spelling Reform Association and the American
Philological Society.

The rules were these :—

lluLE 1. — Omit a from the digraph ea when pronounced
as e short, as in hed, helth, etc.

Rule 2. — Omit silent e after a short vowel, as in hav,
giv, liv, definit, forbad, etc.

Rule 3. — Write / for ^;/i in such words as alfabet,
fantom, camfor, filosofi, teleyraf, etc.

Rule 4. — When a word ends with a double letter, omit
the last, as in shal, wil, clif, etc.

Rule 5. — Change ec? final into t when it has the sound
of t, as in lasht, imprest, fixf, etc.

Mr Pitman, while willing to accept these rules as far
as they went, considered them insufficient even as a pre-
liminary step, and proposed their expansion in this form : —

Rule 1. — Omit a from the digraph en when pronounced
as e short, as in lied, helth, etc.

Rule 2. — Omit silent e after a short vowel, as in hav,


giv, liv, definit, forbad, etc. Change done,, etc., to
dun, luv. Also omit silent e after a long vowel that is
expressed by a digraj)h ; as, leav, lueav, cheez, hmez.

Rule 3. — Write / for ph in such words as alfabet,
fantoni, cainfo7\ filusoji, telegraf.

Rule 4. — AVlien a word ends with a double consonant,
omit the last, as in shal, wil, clif, except in words ending
in -all, -oil; as, tall, toll.

liuLE 5. — Change ed tinal into t when it has the sound
of t, as in lasht, imprest, fixt.

Rule 6. — Change ie and ei to ee, when pronounced ee ;
as preest priest), seez (seize), greev (grieve), heleev (be-
lieve), reseev (receive), 7'eseet (receipt). Change 2)rove,
move, remove, bosom, lose, to proov, moov, remoov, boozom,
looz ; and correct any other anomalies in the spelling of
words containing long vowels that will not lead to a mis-
pronunciation ; as, peeple for people.

The " rules " have at length, after seven years' experi-
ence, and a vast amount of practice, taken the following^
form : —

Rule 1. — The letters c, q, x are rejected as useless, and
every other consonant is confined to the representation of
one sound; as every figure represents one number.

Rule 2. — A, e, i, o, u represent the short vowels in
pat, pet, pit, pot, put ; and u represents, in addition, the
vowel in but, double. The diphthongs in bind, boy, bound,
beauty, are written by ei, oi, ou, iu ; and the o])en diph-
thong in naive. Kaiser, by ai. (/, iu preference to ei, is
allowed to represent the first personal pronoun.)

Rule 3. — Th represents the two sounds in breath,
breathe, (called, as single letters, ith, thee,) and the re-


cognized digraphs ch, sh, ng, (called, as single letters, chay,
ish, ing,) represent the sounds heard in much, wish, sing.
Zh (zheej is introduced for the voiced ish in vision (vizhon).
Insert a hyphen in pot-hook, mis-hap, hogs-head, etc.

Rule 4. — In monosyllables, and sometimes in poly-
syllables, n represents ng before k and g, as think (thingk),
anger (ang-ger).

Rule 5. — The spelling of the long vowels is not altered,
except in cases of gross irregvdarity, such as beau (bo),
cocoa (koko), receive (reseev), believe (beleev), because any
system of digraphs that might be adopted to represent the
long vowels would prejudice the reform. Every letter of
the old alphabet is used uniformly, ONLY for the repre-
sentation of consonants, short vowels, and diphthongs.

No change is at present proposed in the spelling of
proper names, whether of persons or places. This depart-
ment of orthography, of right, belongs to the owners of
the names, and the inhabitants of the places.

In the year 1884 Mr Pitman paid a third visit to Edin-
burgh, where, to use his own words, he " deposited the first
seeds of phonetic reform " in the sunmier of 1841. There
was a strong and interesting contrast between the two visits.
On the first occasion he was a young man lecturing on what
was regarded as almost a new art, and distributing a few
copies of the Penny Plate and the Sd. octavo edition of Pho-
nograj)hy. Shorthand, even for professional purposes, was
hai'dly known in Scotland at that time; but the seed was
sown in a congenial soil, and it quickly sprang up, and the
plant grew apace. On the occasion of the 1884 visit he was
the venerable and honored guest of the Scottish Phonogra-
phic Association, the largest society in the kingdom devoted


to the cultivation and protnotioii of phonetic shoi-thand. It
wasopening its twelfth session in the Oddfellows' Ilall, which
was crowded to excess in the expectation of hearing an
address from the now celebrated inventor of Phonography.
The chair was taken by the Lord Provost, Sir George Har-
rison, who was deeply moved and gratified by the enthusi-
astic reception given to one who had done so much, as he
said, " to increase the sum of human knowledge/' Mr
Pitman's address was a characteristic one. He avowed
himself " terribly in earnest" about the phonetic move-
ment, and described it, more suo, as " a holy crusade against
ignorance." " Tn this age," he said, "of railways and
tramways, and exhibitions, and the Suez canal, and the
Mersey and Severn tunnels, and a dozen more good things
projected, it cannot be that people will go on writing with
the stammering pen of longhand, when they may write
with the fluent phonographic peu, with all the rapidity of
speech, and with more than the ease of speech." Nor was
the spelling question overlooked, " All the efforts of
teachers and committees of School Boards are baffled by
our barbarous and inconsistent spelling, which ' no fellow '
can master, except some of the teachers, and some writers
for the press, editors, proof-readers, and compositors. Only
a portion of the writers for the Press are what are called
good spellers. There is a chorus of lamentation from the
Inspectors that the reading taught in the Board Schools
is non-intelligent. The Inspectors say that the children
read in a senseless manner. They pronounce the words,
but in such a way that a listener cannot understand what
is read. The main cause of this is that they have been
taught to read and spell mechanically, and by ' cram,'
without the use of their reasoning powers. The memory


alone has been exercised^ and not the judgment/' He
then quoted Mr Gladstone's denunciation of English
orthography^ and Professor Lounsbury's indictment, —
" that, considering the difference of circumstances, there
is not amongst the most savage tribes any fetishism more
senseless and more stupid than that which, with educated
men among us, treats as worthy of respect or reverence
the present orthography of the English tongue." In reply
to a cordial vote of thanks, Mr Pitman said he had been
amazed at the manner in which Phonography had been
received by the public in Scotland, and assured his hearers
that he should 'return to Bath with the determination for
the remainder of his days to work harder than ever.

A few weeks after this visit Mr Pitman was plaintiff in
the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice
in the case of Pitman v. Hine, an action for the infringe-
ment of his copyright in the Phonographic Teaching Books.
The case was tried before Mr Justice Mathew, without
a jury; Mr Pitman's counsel being Mr Charles, Q.C.
(now Mr Justice Charles), and Mr Shortt (instructed by
Mr E. B. Titley, of Bath). The defendant's counsel was
Mr R. T. Wright.

For two days the Court was occupied with the details
of the construction of Phonography and its principles
of contraction as laid down by Mr Pitman in his books,
and as employed by the defendant in the publication
which was the subject of the action. The principal
witness was, of course, Mr Pitman himself, and his appear-
ance in the box excited a good deal of interest and curiosity
among the many reporters and shorthand writers always
frequenting the Courts, most of whom, though writers of
his system, had never seen the inventoi- in the flesh. The


case which he sought to cstabUsh against the defendant was,
that in his pubhshed list of '' Contracted Outlines" he had
availed himself of the rules contained in the " Teacher,"
the '' Manual," and the " Reporter's Companion," simply
varying the illustrations ; some of his examples, however,
being identical. iNlr Pitman gave his evidence very
clearly with the assistance of a black-board, which, covered
as it was with shorthand symbols, gave the Court the
a])pcarance of a large phonographic class. Confirmatory
evidence was given by the Hon. Ion Keith-Falconer, by the
writer of this memoir, and by Mr T. Hill. The defendant's
case was that there was originality, not only in the rules
laid down in his book, but in the selection and classifica-
tion of tiie examples, independently of Mr Pitman's rules.
But he failed to convince the Judge on these points.

Mr Justice Mathew followed the explanations with great
care and minuteness, and on the morning of the third day
of the trial he delivered judgment at great length, declaring
that the evidence led to the " irresistible conclusion that the
defendant had been copying the plaintiff's book ; and the
only reason why he can say he has not done it is, that he has
illustrated the plaintiff's system by different words from
those that the plaintiff has used." He concluded by saying,
" The defendant felt his way very carefully in commencing
his publication. He i)ublished first a small pamphlet,
which was printed [chromographcd], and against that the
])laintiff protested, but he thought it a small matter, and
he probably hesitated (cither from his own good sense, or
from the excellent advice he may have had) about com-
mencing a Chancery suit in reference to that. The defen-
dant, emboldened perhaps by the plaintiff's neglect, at a
certain interval afterwards printed [lithographed] what he


had previously put forward in a different form, and then
again the plaintiff protested. In the year 1880, when this
publication was brought to his knowledge, he protested
against it and pointed out once more that it was an in-
fringement of his copyright, but he took no proceedings.
Again the defendant made a further experiment, that
expanded work No. 2, and the work the subject of the
present proceedings. He expanded the ' Contracted Out-

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Online LibraryThomas Allen ReedA biography of Isaac Pitman (inventor of phonography) → online text (page 11 of 14)