2014-10-23

snapshot: Glossography, a smoothly flowing phonetic alphabet

While strolling through old shorthand systems a few nights ago I stumbled across a very attractive alternative alphabet called Glossography, also known to its author as Glossal Writing. It was created by an educated man who had both a scientific nature and a good sense of aesthetics. The book is:

Glossography. A system of short-hand based upon
   the principle of genetic analogy between writing and speech.
Robert Armstrong M.D.
Chicago: Libby & Sherwood Print Co., 1901
Library of Congress catalog: Z 56 .A73 1901

In the introduction of his book, Dr Armstrong admits that existing shorthand systems are capable of great speed. He says he is trying to design something which is highly legible and more easily learned. A system for everyday handwriting and occasional dictation use.

Dr Armstrong indicates that his system of less than 50 symbols could be written rapidly if necessary because his glyphs all flow together smoothly. Compared to Pitman Phonography, “the Glossal movements are not only fewer but freer, having fewer angles and sudden stops… Its word forms can be made clearly legible with very much less care than is necessary in methods which omit part of the elements, using stiff, angular, unevenly shaded outlines.”


Armstrong believes that a well-practiced user of his system can take dictation in Glossography without needing any abbreviations, “grammalogues” and so forth. This high degree of legibility would make it possible for anyone to read the shorthand at any time. However abbreviations could certainly be devised if a user were interested in doing so.

He feels that his glyphs graphically represent speech itself. Vowels “should be represented by simple, forward flowing, independent linear signs…” He attempted to base the individual vowel signs on the shape which the tongue and lower lip acquired while producing each phoneme. A similar but more abstract rationale went into the design of the consonants.



One possible weakness of the system is the similarity of some of the symbols. “s” is a tiny semi-circle, “z” is a small semi-circle, “sh” is a bigger one and “zh” is a large one. An observer might wonder if every user could reliably make all those distinctions in reading and writing. However, as all the sounds in the group are somewhat related, the original word could probably be deduced even if the writing were a bit ambiguous.

In his rare little book Dr Armstrong has left us a delightful phonetic alphabet.


You can view the book online at Hathi Trust or purchase a hardcopy reprint at Amazon.com

No comments:

Post a Comment