Visible Speech

Visible Speech is a phonetic alphabet invented by Alexander Melville Bell. You might have heard of his son, Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone. Both Bells were deeply involved in the education of the Deaf, and Melville Bell invented this alphabet to help teach them to speak. It was also used in other areas of linguistics, as it made a dandy phonetic alphabet before the International Phonetic Alphabet was designed (more on that a little later). I remember reading about it in kth grade (for a small integer k), reading some kids' biography of Alexander Graham Bell for a book report. They mentioned it, said that it was so expressive, you could even transcribe a cough. And even then, I thought that such a thing would be cool to see (even if they were exaggerating about the cough thing—or so I thought).

Years later, and I'm wandering around through a used book sale that had come to town. All kinds of used books being sold to raise money for whatever school... Those sales are dangerous. You just push your cart through and throw in anything that looks even the slightest bit interesting. Who cares? The books all cost something like a quarter, might as well get everything that might be good. And I found a book. On Visible Speech. I couldn't believe it. It's not like I'd been looking ever since that book report, but I do not forget things (unless they're important, of course). Minor notions stay in my head for decades. At the checkout line, I found that this book was not the expected 25¢, but something like $20. OK, still not exorbitant, but unexpected. I recall I had to borrow money from my cousin, who was with me, to pay for it since I didn't have much cash. I realized why when looking through the book more. On the flyleaf was handwritten the inscription, “To Prof. Edward Grossman, with kind regards, from the Author”. Wow. A signed book. Would have been nice if he'd actually used his name, but okay.

One of the things that kept Visible Speech from becoming more accepted was the fact that it wasn't based on existing alphabets, and so it needed its own special type to be cast, and that's an added expense for the printer. Bell tried to make this easier by designing the symbols so that the same sort (piece of type) could be used for more than one symbol by printing it in different orientations. Still, it was a big barrier to acceptance. Of course, in today's modern age of computers, when fonts can be easily made and scaled to any size and you don't have to cast sorts, that wouldn't have been a problem. So, I thought, what if someone today were to make a computer font for Visible Speech. And so I did. I remember doing some heavy obsessing on making a METAFONT version of the font one year and really pounding at it. The symmetries that Bell put in came in handy, because I could program METAFONT to rotate glyphs to make new ones easily. I didn't go all the way to making the glyphs square in footprint and turning in 90° increments for all the shapes; I made one for horizontally-oriented symbols and one for vertically-oriented ones and turned them 180° (and for that matter, Henry Sweet did the same thing). Hmm... Looking for the font to offer it for download, and I'm thinking that what I have is an old version and I need to package up the new improved one that included new characters. I thought I did them. I'll put it up soon.

Of course, METAFONT is not a really commonly-used font format. So eventually I took screenshots of the font and traced them in a font-design program and made a TrueType version, so now it's truly back in the world. You can download the font from here. The VS stuff is up in the Unicode Private Use Area.

Anyway, back to VS. The Bells used VS to teach the Deaf, and it also made an impression on one Mr Henry Sweet, a noted phonologist. The character of “Henry Higgins” in Shaw's Pygmalion (and thus also in the musical My Fair Lady) was based on Sweet (in fact, there's a brief scene in the movie, where Higgins shows Eliza his notebook near the beginning, and she can't read it. It's definitely written in Visible Speech. Here's a screenshot of it). He was a very prominent linguist and phonologist, and was active in the development of what was to become the International Phonetic Alphabet (though I think much of it was really done by Otto Jespersen). He liked Visible Speech a lot: enough that he commissioned and paid for a font of type for it, and made it available to anyone who wanted to use it in the journal of the Philological Society. But he thought it needed some improvement, and so he added and changed it some. His concept of phonology was rather closer to the modern concept than Bell's was, so the changes are for the most part welcome.

Descriptions and examples of both styles of Visible Speech are available here: I have a scan of Bell's book Sounds and their Relations and also Sweet's article Sound Notation, in which he introduces his changes. Both are in DjVu format, which I think is very appropriate for scanned documents. They're also available in PDF format in the downloads section.

Visible Speech is not yet in the Unicode standard. I'm working on it. That's why the font has it in the Private Use Area (for now). Visible Speech is in ISO Standard 15924, which defines codes for representing writing systems. Visible Speech is officially denoted with the four-letter code Visp, and numeric code 280. According to the ISO 15924 documentation, that does not, unfortunately, guarantee it an entrée into Unicode. Oh well. But we shall still try.