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Invent your own universal language

Bob Sanderson - Language innovator from Big Meat Eater

In the 1982 cult horror film Big Meat Eater, nerdy butcher Bob Sanderson works to promote Adanaco, the “new universal language” he’s developed for his small English-speaking town. Inventing new languages, or new ways to write old ones, has been a geeky obsession for hundreds of years.

Benjamin Franklin, irritated by the inconsistencies of English spelling, invented his own new alphabet in 1779. Alexander Graham Bell came up with another one, called Visible Speech, based on the positions of the tongue, mouth, and throat. George Bernard Shaw regularly railed against the stupidity of English spelling, and, after he made a fortune from My Fair Lady, he sponsored the development of a new style of writing known as Shavian – although he did most of his own writing in Pitman.

There are dozens of other proposed methods for reforming the written language. Some, like Pitman, Unifon, Interbet, and Quikscript, use special characters. Others, proposed by numerous societies and individuals, involve simplifying English spelling. But most proposals are based on the same commonsense idea – that words should be written the way they sound. (This is not always easy in practice – a word spoken by one person may sound different when spoken by another.) Enthusiasts point out that, if English spelling were reformed, the language could be learned faster by native speakers, and taught more easily to foreigners.

But when Isaac Pitman invented his “Stenographic Soundhand” system, back in the 1830s, it was eagerly taken up by people who saw it as a way to banish the madness of English spelling, and turn written English writing into something standardized and rational. It was a writing system the whole British Empire could use! And why stop at English? Using Pitman as a universal system, every language could be written in the same way. You could listen to a language you didn’t understand and write it down perfectly, or read words in a language you didn’t understand, and have your words understood by a native speaker. Well, that was the theory, anyway.

Isaac Pitman must have been caught up in the same frenzy of excitement. His early books on shorthand included appendices explaining how to use the same writing system to write Russian, French, Spanish, and even Latin and Ancient Greek.

Over time, the Pitman system changed. The people pushing the change were the court reporters – the people who keep the official records of court proceedings. For them, the most important thing about Pitman was its speed, and various changes were made to the system, so it became steadily faster. The downside was that shorthand also became more complex. A system that could originally be learned in a week eventually took months to learn properly, and became too complicated to work well as an international language. George Bernard Shaw lamented the way that the evolution of shorthand had been driven by reporters.

The emphasis on speed is also what has led to shorthand’s death, or, at least, its comatose state. These days, we have many ways to record speech in real time – for example, a digital recorder. But English is still a cow to write, and people are still reinventing a wheel that has been reinvented hundreds of times in the past, by proposing new systems for writing it.

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