A Simplified Alphabet by Mark Twain
(This article, written during the autumn of 1899, was about the last
writing done by Mark Twain on any impersonal subject.)
I have had a kindly feeling, a friendly feeling, a cousinly feeling toward
Simplified Spelling, from the beginning of the movement three years ago,
but nothing more inflamed than that. It seemed to me to merely propose
to substitute one inadequacy for another; a sort of patching and
plugging poor old dental relics with cement and gold and porcelain
paste; what was really wanted was a new set of teeth. That is to say, a
The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn't know how
to spell, and can't be taught. In this it is like all other alphabets
except one—the phonographic. That is the only competent alphabet in the
world. It can spell and correctly pronounce any word in our language.
That admirable alphabet, that brilliant alphabet, that inspired alphabet,
can be learned in an hour or two. In a week the student can learn to
write it with some little facility, and to read it with considerable
ease. I know, for I saw it tried in a public school in Nevada forty-five
years ago, and was so impressed by the incident that it has remained in
my memory ever since.
I wish we could adopt it in place of our present written (and printed)
character. I mean SIMPLY the alphabet; simply the consonants and the
vowels—I don't mean any REDUCTIONS or abbreviations of them, such as the
shorthand writer uses in order to get compression and speed. No, I would
SPELL EVERY WORD OUT.
I will insert the alphabet here as I find it in Burnz's PHONIC SHORTHAND.
(Figure 1) It is arranged on the basis of Isaac Pitman's PHONOGRAPHY.
Isaac Pitman was the originator and father of scientific phonography. It
is used throughout the globe. It was a memorable invention. He made it
public seventy-three years ago. The firm of Isaac Pitman & Sons, New
York, still exists, and they continue the master's work.
What should we gain?
First of all, we could spell DEFINITELY—and correctly—any word you please,
just by the SOUND of it. We can't do that with our present alphabet. For
instance, take a simple, every-day word PHTHISIS. If we tried to spell
it by the sound of it, we should make it TYSIS, and be laughed at by
every educated person.
Secondly, we should gain in REDUCTION OF LABOR in writing.
Simplified Spelling makes valuable reductions in the case of several
hundred words, but the new spelling must be LEARNED. You can't spell
them by the sound; you must get them out of the book.
But even if we knew the simplified form for every word in the language,
the phonographic alphabet would still beat the Simplified Speller "hands
down" in the important matter of economy of labor. I will illustrate:
PRESENT FORM: through, laugh, highland.
SIMPLIFIED FORM: thru, laff, hyland.
PHONOGRAPHIC FORM: (Figure 2)
To write the word "through," the pen has to make twenty-one strokes.
To write the word "thru," the pen has to make twelve strokes—a good
To write that same word with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to
make only THREE strokes.
To write the word "laugh," the pen has to make FOURTEEN strokes.
To write "laff," the pen has to make the SAME NUMBER of strokes—no labor
is saved to the penman.
To write the same word with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to make
only THREE strokes.
To write the word "highland," the pen has to make twenty-two strokes.
To write "hyland," the pen has to make eighteen strokes.
To write that word with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to make
only FIVE strokes. (Figure 3)
To write the words "phonographic alphabet," the pen has to make
To write "fonografic alfabet," the pen has to make fifty strokes. To the
penman, the saving in labor is insignificant.
To write that word (with vowels) with the phonographic alphabet, the pen
has to make only SEVENTEEN strokes.
Without the vowels, only THIRTEEN strokes. (Figure 4) The vowels are
hardly necessary, this time.
We make five pen-strokes in writing an m. Thus: (Figure 5) a stroke down;
a stroke up; a second stroke down; a second stroke up; a final stroke
down. Total, five. The phonographic alphabet accomplishes the m with a
single stroke—a curve, like a parenthesis that has come home drunk and
has fallen face down right at the front door where everybody that goes
along will see him and say, Alas!
When our written m is not the end of a word, but is otherwise located, it
has to be connected with the next letter, and that requires another
pen-stroke, making six in all, before you get rid of that m. But never
mind about the connecting strokes—let them go. Without counting them,
the twenty-six letters of our alphabet consumed about eighty pen-strokes
for their construction—about three pen-strokes per letter.
It is THREE TIMES THE NUMBER required by the phonographic alphabet. It
requires but ONE stroke for each letter.
My writing-gait is—well, I don't know what it is, but I will time myself
and see. Result: it is twenty-four words per minute. I don't mean
composing; I mean COPYING. There isn't any definite composing-gait.
Very well, my copying-gait is 1,440 words per hour—say 1,500. If I could
use the phonographic character with facility I could do the 1,500 in
twenty minutes. I could do nine hours' copying in three hours; I could
do three years' copying in one year. Also, if I had a typewriting
machine with the phonographic alphabet on it—oh, the miracles I could
I am not pretending to write that character well. I have never had a
lesson, and I am copying the letters from the book. But I can accomplish
my desire, at any rate, which is, to make the reader get a good and
clear idea of the advantage it would be to us if we could discard our
present alphabet and put this better one in its place—using it in books,
newspapers, with the typewriter, and with the pen.
(Figure 6)—MAN DOG HORSE. I think it is graceful and would look comely in
print. And consider—once more, I beg—what a labor-saver it is! Ten
pen-strokes with the one system to convey those three words above, and
thirty-three by the other! (Figure 7) I mean, in SOME ways, not in all.
I suppose I might go so far as to say in most ways, and be within the
facts, but never mind; let it go at SOME. One of the ways in which it
exercises this birthright is—as I think—continuing to use our laughable
alphabet these seventy-three years while there was a rational one at
hand, to be had for the taking.
It has taken five hundred years to simplify some of Chaucer's rotten
spelling—if I may be allowed to use so frank a term as that—and it will
take five hundred more to get our exasperating new Simplified
Corruptions accepted and running smoothly. And we sha'n't be any better
off then than we are now; for in that day we shall still have the
privilege the Simplifiers are exercising now: ANYBODY can change the
spelling that wants to.
BUT YOU CAN'T CHANGE THE PHONOGRAPHIC SPELLING; THERE ISN'T ANY WAY. It
will always follow the SOUND. If you want to change the spelling, you
have to change the sound first.
Mind, I myself am a Simplified Speller; I belong to that unhappy guild
that is patiently and hopefully trying to reform our drunken old
alphabet by reducing his whiskey. Well, it will improve him. When they
get through and have reformed him all they can by their system he will
be only HALF drunk. Above that condition their system can never lift
him. There is no competent, and lasting, and real reform for him but to
take away his whiskey entirely, and fill up his jug with Pitman's
wholesome and undiseased alphabet.
One great drawback to Simplified Spelling is, that in print a simplified
word looks so like the very nation! and when you bunch a whole squadron
of the Simplified together the spectacle is very nearly unendurable.
The da ma ov koars kum when the publik ma be expektd to get rekonsyled to
the bezair asspekt of the Simplified Kombynashuns, but—if I may be
allowed the expression—is it worth the wasted time? (Figure 8)
To see our letters put together in ways to which we are not accustomed
offends the eye, and also takes the EXPRESSION out of the words.
La on, Makduf, and damd be he hoo furst krys hold, enuf!
It doesn't thrill you as it used to do. The simplifications have sucked
the thrill all out of it.
But a written character with which we are NOT ACQUAINTED does not offend
us—Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, and the others—they have an
interesting look, and we see beauty in them, too. And this is true of
hieroglyphics, as well. There is something pleasant and engaging about
the mathematical signs when we do not understand them. The mystery
hidden in these things has a fascination for us: we can't come across a
printed page of shorthand without being impressed by it and wishing we
could read it.
Very well, what I am offering for acceptance and adoption is not
shorthand, but longhand, written with the SHORTHAND ALPHABET UNREDUCED.
You can write three times as many words in a minute with it as you can
write with our alphabet. And so, in a way, it IS properly a shorthand.
It has a pleasant look, too; a beguiling look, an inviting look. I will
write something in it, in my rude and untaught way: (Figure 9)
Even when I do it it comes out prettier than it does in Simplified
Spelling. Yes, and in the Simplified it costs one hundred and
twenty-three pen-strokes to write it, whereas in the phonographic it
costs only twenty-nine.
(Figure 9) is probably (Figure 10).
Let us hope so, anyway.