Sunday, August 16, 2009

A 19th Century Transliteration of a 16th Century Treatise on Transliteration

Most people -- myself included -- usually buy books that either appeal to a specific content area or topic about which they have an interest or that have some common bibliographic trait. Even rare book collectors, whose highly particular areas of specialization often range from the bizarre to the more bizarre, tend to allow a single compulsion to dictate their buying habits. But there is something to be said for the occasional eclectic and meaningless purchase. This week’s book, for example, was something I grabbed at a used book store for a bargain; even though it is about something I know essentially nothing about, I thought that it would be an intriguing addition to my bookshelf and, as it turns, I was right in more ways than one.

The book is Hart’s Orthography and is a "reprint" of the sixteenth century phonetician and Chester herald John Hart’s 1569 An Orthografie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or painte thimage of manne’s voice, moste like to the life or nature (more specifically, it is a lithographed edition of the copy held by the British Museum -- today the British Library -- but transliterated, on which more below). It was published, sold by, and likely prepared, by Fred Pitman of the Phonetic Depot, at 20 Paternoster Row, London in 1850. As its name suggests, the firm Phonetic Depot specialized in texts presenting orthographic studies and transliterations of standard English works into specialized shorthand.

The book that is reprinted -- Hart’s Orthografie -- was originally published by William Sere “dwelling at the west ende of Paules [Churchyard], at the signe of the Hedge-hogge” (St. Paul’s Churchyard was the central book production and retail market for London from the start of English printing in the fifteenth century up until the devastating German blitz bombings of the 1940s). The original was probably imprinted by London printer Henry Denham. As the title suggests, the Orthografie proposed an inventive new system of writing that Hart felt would more accurately record the English language as it was spoken; his book set out the rules of this system and defended its need for sociological, pedagogical, and economic efficiency reasons.

The binding is a gray-brown cloth with Victorian style decorative blind tooling around the edges both front and back and a gilt title in the center of the front cover. The pages measure 9.5cm x 15cm and are in 4+ unsigned gatherings in duodecimo format. 

The pagination corresponds to the pages of the book being reprinted, beginning on the reprint title page (the second leaf after the edition title page) and runs [1]-78 with a blank flyleaf at the back. The final pastedown has almost entirely come up from the inside of the back board; the front cover is bumped on the corners and the spine is split so that, as with other books in my collection, the scrap-paper the printed used in the process of constructing the codex’s backbone is beginning to show (I can’t tell what the document once was but three identifiable phrases are “incorporates” “Freemen”, “of the Borough”, and “previous to the last”, all which suggest that it was a legal text). The spine damage is causing the book to open very loosely, though nothing is completely separated yet.

With the exception of segments of English and Latin text such as section and chapter headings, the dedication (to academic Jacob Bredan), the license and colophon, selected primary source quotations, and (most intriguingly) published marginal reference glosses, the entire text is written in what seems to be Pitman shorthand: the main text, the table of contents, the publisher’s prefatory note to the reader, the author’s note (titled, “To the doubtfull of the English Orthographie, John Hart, Chester Heralt, wisheth all health and prosperitie”), are all in Pitman, a system of writing developed by Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897) in the early nineteenth century and that resembles a cross between cuneiform, Hebrew, Korean, and Martian. The book’s contents (after the table of contents, dedication, stationer’s letter, and author’s letter) are as follows:

Preface: “The Preface, wherein is brieflye conteyned the reasons, causes, commodities, summe and effect of this Treatise”. The sections in this chapter are: “The first commoditie for the unlearned natural English people”; “Secondly for straungers, or the rude country Englishmen which may desire to read English as the best sort use to speak it”; “Thirdly for cost and time saved”; “And last, for a helpe for the learned sort which desire to pronounce other tongues wright.”

First chapter: “What letters are, and of their right use”.

Second chapter: “How some men maintaine our abused Inglish Writing”.

Third chapter: “Of the divers vices which use maintaineth in our writing, and how they are particularly by reason confuted.”

Fourth chapter: “Of the number of our vowels, and of their auncient sounds, in which they are always used, in the newe maner hereafter: by which their perfite use, our present abused sounds of some of them are found to be Diphthongs.”

Fifth chapter: “The number of consonantes & breathes which we use in our speech, with the leaving of superfluous letters, and receyving of such other as we neede: with example of their right use.”

Sixth chapter: “Of the accidentes unto vowels, to weete, time, tune, and breath, with Diphthongs, and Triphthongs, and an order of distinction and pointing used thereafter.”

Seventh chapter: “An exersiz of dat huir iz sed: huer-in iz declard hou de rest ov de consonants ar mad bei dinstruments ov de moute: huire var o-mited in de premiser, for dat ui did not mur abiur dem.”

Eighth chapter: “/exampls hou serten uder naisons du sound der leters, bod in Hatin, and in der muder tung, derbei tu kno de beter hou tu pronouns der spires, and so tu vid dem as de du.”

(The original edition, and the table of contents in this book, indicate that there should actually be nine chapters; for some reason this was printed with only eight -- there is a Pitman shorthand notation in square brackets on the final page that may explain the missing chapter, but I cannot translate it.)

That's right. The last two chapter titles are written in what sounds, today, like a pidgin German-English language. This is, in fact, Hart’s proposed system for more accurately spelling English words. Though it sounds ridiculous to us today, this provides fantastic evidence as to how “proper” English actually sounded to a sixteenth-century Englishman (such as, for example, Shakespeare). Of course, we must take into account the fact that many of the phonemes had different sounds then than they do today, and many of the letters likely resulted in different aural effects. Nonetheless, Hart’s work offers a unique look at how English was undergoing radical changes, most notably the Great Vowel Shift that completely revolutionized the language, evolving it from Chaucer’s Middle English of the middle ages to the Modern English of the Renaissance. 

My careful readers will have noted that the book was published by Fred Pitman and is written in Pitman shorthand: I can’t imagine that this is a coincidence, but I have no idea who this man was -- one of Sir Isaac’s two sons was named Alfred but he wasn’t born until at least eleven years after this book was published (it is worth noting that Sir Isaac was one of ten siblings, none of whom I have been able to learn more about).

The original book was printed in Latin and standard English (with the exception of the last two chapters, which were -- as they are in Pitman’s reprint -- written in Hart’s orthography). In addition, the original changes the order of some of the preliminaries, moves some of the paratext to the back of the book, and includes a “table” of key terms and their location in the book (essentially an early index).

My copy -- as with so many of my books -- is rich with evidence of use. On the title page a late nineteenth century hand has inscribed in thin brown ink “H Ellis”. Another reader has thoroughly marked up chapters 2-6 (with some minor marks in the other chapters, including attempting phonetic interpretations of Hart’s orthography in the final chapter), writing out notes, reminders, and attempted translations of the Pitman in the margins with a gray pencil. This reader has made a note at the end of the book that seems to be dated “4 June 1868”.

About Hart, I can do little more than quote in full Vivian Salmon’s entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which provides also a good brief on the history of early modern orthographic scholarship:

Hart, John (c.1501–1574), herald and phonetician, belonged to a family of tenant farmers long settled at Northolt, near London; his father, John Hart, died about 1500. There are no records of his baptism and education, but his writings demonstrate that he was a well-read man, acquainted not only with classical languages, but also with several contemporary vernaculars. He may have spent some time at the University of Cambridge, since he had intellectual or personal links with three Cambridge scholars, two of whom, Sir Thomas Smith (d. 1577) and Sir John Cheke (d. 1557), were (like Hart) active in promoting spelling reform; a third, Sir William Cecil (d. 1598), was described by Hart as his ‘specially good master’. As a powerful figure in government circles, Hart's ‘master’ was in a good position to act as his patron, and he became by the 1550s a diplomatic courier, then in the 1560s an official of the court of wards and liveries and a herald pursuivant. He was finally promoted in 1567 to the highly prestigious rank of Chester herald at the College of Arms in London.

Hart wrote three treatises on spelling reform; the first (1551) was not published at the time; the second, An Orthografie (1569), was a more sophisticated version of this manuscript; and the third, A Methode (1570), instructs learners in the use of the ‘phonetic’ alphabet which Hart devised. A fourth work intended to provide a simpler alphabet was not completed. Hart proposed to reform English spelling because it was both inconsistent and irregular. A fairly standardized orthography had been developed in the fifteenth century by chancery scribes, whose obligation to send out legal documents, by now in English, to all parts of the country, and to speakers of regional dialects, required them to use a generally regular and comprehensible spelling system. But when Caxton set up his printing press in 1476, he abandoned the regularized orthography of the scribes—possibly because he had to employ foreign compositors—and his successors, even as late as 1551, were no more systematic.

Hart hoped to reform English orthography because it was an obstacle to the acquisition of literacy by, for example, protestants anxious to read the Bible for themselves in their quest for salvation. Furthermore, literate foreigners needed assistance in coping with the vagaries of English spelling, which were such a deterrent to comprehension. Hart's aim was to match graphs and sounds, taking as his standard the speech of the court and of London and its environs. Where necessary he provided new graphs where single characters representing single sounds were lacking in the existing alphabet, as with, for example, and . In Hart's system, one graph represented one sound and vice versa. He also explained, for the benefit of speakers of other dialects who needed to be conversant with the sounds of the standard language, how individual sounds were articulated. Consequently, he not only became a spelling reformer, but also developed into a phonetician of outstanding intelligence and insight.

Whereas the study of orthography in the classical tradition was based on the written representation of vowels, diphthongs, semi-vowels, and consonants (including a sub-category of mutes), Hart based his phonetic script on the spoken language, noting for the first time by any scholar several features of connected English speech, such as elision, assimilation, stress, and intonation; and in his study of individual sounds, he noticed such features as the aspiration which follows initial voiceless plosives, represented by Hart as in, for example, pheip, for ‘pipe’. These features are clearly visible in the phonetic transcription of some forty pages of text included in An Orthografie.

Hart was not the first English scholar to publish his ideas on spelling reform, since he was forestalled by Sir Thomas Smith, who published his De recta et emendata linguae anglicae scriptione in 1568, but he was the first (in 1551) to deal with it so subtly. Unfortunately his work did not meet with the lasting success it deserved, possibly because Richard Mulcaster published, in 1582, The First Part of the Elementarie, a proposal for reforming English spelling, without using new characters. It was based as far as possible on traditional and established spellings, and proved extremely popular, superseding Hart's more academic works.

Hart died in London on 16 July 1574, leaving a widow, Mary. She was still alive in 1578, when she presented a petition to Lord Burghley.

A final note about my book is worth making, and that is the question of scarcity. At least twelve research libraries list copies of the 1850 Pitman edition in their public catalogs: not an overwhelming number by most measures. A search of dealers reveals, surprisingly, nobody selling a copy of the 1850 edition (in 2009 Kessinger Publishing, a print-on-demand firm, made a reprint of the 1850 reprint available and these are not worth anything). In 1969, Scolar Press printed a octavo facsimile edition of Hart’s original (somewhat rare) and the Orthografie was also included in the two-volume John Hart’s Works on English Orthography and Pronunciation, edited by Bror Danielsson and published by Almquist & Wiksell of Stockholm in 1955-63 (very rare). I’m left, then, with an enigma: a book that seems quite lonely in modern collections, written in an alphabet I cannot understand, about a language no longer in use.

No comments:

Post a Comment