Bell touts fur­ther progress on Vis­i­ble Speech

The Expositor (Brantford) - - ENTERTAINMENT - THE BELL LET­TERS

In our world of elec­tronic and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions, one won­ders what ev­i­dence of our day-to-day lives will ex­ist for our de­scen­dants in the next cen­tury. Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has given us the abil­ity to be in al­most con­stant touch with one an­other. But, will our emails and texts still ex­ist a hun­dred years from now? For decades, let­ter writ­ing was of­ten an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence for most peo­ple. Keep­ing in touch meant sit­ting down with pen and pa­per. Re­ceiv­ing a let­ter was of­ten an ex­cit­ing event, es­pe­cially from some­one miles away. And, for many, in­clud­ing Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell and his fam­ily, th­ese let­ters were some­thing to be kept, not sim­ply dis­carded once read. The Bells were pro­fuse writ­ers and as a re­sult, their story can be told to­day through thou­sands of let­ters.

Born in Scot­land in 1847, Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell lived a unique life. In­flu­enced by his fa­ther, Melville, a pro­fes­sor of elo­cu­tion, and his deaf mother, El­iza; the loss of his broth­ers, Melville and Ed­ward, to Con­sump­tion; and mar­riage to his deaf pupil, Ma­bel Hub­bard, Bell left a legacy to the world that few could imag­ine liv­ing with­out. How this came to pass is best re­vealed through the let­ters be­tween th­ese in­di­vid­u­als. Here, we present those let­ters to you.

With this let­ter, Aleck filled his fa­ther in on a suc­cess­ful meet­ing had with mem­bers of the Blind Asy­lum and his pro­mo­tion of the use of an al­tered form of Vis­i­ble Speech in this ca­pac­ity. Salem, Mass Feb. 22nd 1874 My dear Papa Our meet­ing with the Trustees of the Blind Asy­lum was one of the great­est suc­cesses that Vis­i­ble Speech has yet had.

I had pre­pared (af­ter a great deal of ex­per­i­ment­ing in rais­ing let­ters) up­wards of 400 cards each con­tain­ing an em­bossed sym­bol. Ev­ery­thing nec­es­sary for il­lus­trat­ing the sys­tem prac­ti­cally was in readi­ness. I en­close spec­i­mens of the cards and hold­ers that you may un­der­stand the whole thing.

Dr. Howe was to have been there. In­deed the meet­ing was de­layed for a week at his spe­cial re­quest. He is still how­ever so ill from Pleurisy that he was un­able to put in an ap­pear­ance. Mrs. Ju­lia Ward Howe was present, how­ever, and was much in­ter­ested.

I care­fully avoided the sub­ject of a con­flict with ex­ist­ing al­pha­bets, and com­menced by say­ing that the Lind Al­pha­bet was to serve spe­cial pur­poses, and need not in­ter­fere with their or­di­nary one.

Two ob­jects had to be kept in view. (1) To en­able the Blind to re­ceive in­for­ma­tion from books; and (2) to en­able them to im­part in­for­ma­tion to oth­ers by means of writ­ing.

I thought that th­ese two ob­jects had been con­founded to­gether. If we wish the Blind to be in­de­pen­dent of as­sis­tance from see­ing peo­ple in read­ing books, our char­ac­ters should (1st) rep­re­sent the only lan­guage known to a blind man - the spo­ken tongue that is the words should be spelt pho­net­i­cally, and 2nd - that the char­ac­ters should be em­ployed which could read­ily be felt by a blind man.

It was no mat­ter to a blind man how a word was spelled it was how it sounded that was im­por­tant to him. It was again no mat­ter to a blind child what a let­ter looked like - it was how it felt that was im­por­tant.

In teach­ing a child to write how­ever it would be ad­vis­able to teach it the or­di­nary or­thog­ra­phy, as peo­ple gen­er­ally as­so­ciate pho­net­i­cal spell­ing with ig­no­rance. Hence there would al­ways be a use for the books and al­pha­bets at present in use in their asy­lum - viz - as a means of ac­cus­tom­ing pupils to the or­thog­ra­phy of our lan­guage for the pur­pose of writ­ing cor­rectly.

While then they might is­sue a cer­tain num­ber of vol­ume in the usual way for this pur­pose - I urged the use of the Line-Al­pha­bet as the or­di­nary type for the great ma­jor­ity of their books - for the fol­low­ing rea­sons. On the score of 1. Sim­plic­ity. 2. Uni­ver­sal­ity. 3. Econ­omy. Sim­plic­ity I of­fered to prove that any blind child of or­di­nary ca­pac­ity could read from the raised sym­bols in a few days, and il­lus­trated the point by get­ting Miss Jones who had had no spe­cial fa­cil­i­ties for tac­tile read­ing, to read English words dic­tated by those present, from the raised sym­bols, by the sense of touch. The re­sult a per­fect suc­cess. Words dic­tated “Com­po­si­tion, Phys­i­ol­ogy, Dun­dreary.” Uni­ver­sal­ity The English Blind could learn the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of for­eign lan­guages from the sym­bols, and could read un­der­stand­ing ly works writ­ten in the for­eign lan­guages - they could speak.

So also - the for­eign Blind who could talk English, could at once read works pub­lished in the new type with­out the ne­ces­sity of learn­ing the or­thog­ra­phy of our lan­guage.

The only al­pha­bet yet brought for­ward for the Blind, that had the re­motest chance of be­ing uni­ver­sal.

Uni­ver­sal­ity il­lus­trated by the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of for­eign words, clicks, and in­vented noises, which were suc­cess­fully read by Miss Jones by the sense of touch. Econ­omy Af­ter study­ing the sub­ject - I thought this point of Econ­omy so im­por­tant that I saw the ne­ces­sity for an al­ter­ation in the sym­bols.

In the al­pha­bet, as I pre­sented it to the Trustees, the Point-Tongue El­e­ments were rep­re­sented by ver­ti­cal lines in­stead of hor­i­zon­tal and the hor­i­zon­tal lines were given as Lip-Let­ters. I trust that when you know the rea­sons you will ap­prove of the change. In an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Fre­quency of the Ele­ment sounds I have just com­pleted for the as­sis­tance of ar­tic­u­la­tion of teach­ers of the deaf and dumb - I have found that Poin­tTongue let­ters con­sti­tute as much as 74 per cent of all our con­so­nants. Hence the ver­ti­cal lines, as tak­ing up less space than the oth­ers, were the proper rep­re­sen­ta­tives. If we ap­ply your prin­ci­ple of con­trac­tion and omit vow­els, show­ing their places by the length­en­ing of the con­so­nant line - re­ally lit­tle space would be gained if the point-tongue el­e­ments were rep­re­sented by hor­i­zon­tal lines, for the pro­longed con­so­nant would take up about as much space as con­so­nant and vowel writ­ten in full. The ver­ti­cal line is as great an ad­van­tage for the blind, as the hor­i­zon­tal line is for short­hand re­port­ing. I found it made so much dif­fer­ence in the space that I took the lib­erty of mak­ing the change with­out con­sult­ing you.

Be­fore the Trustees I quoted from the 1868 Re­port of the New York In­sti­tute for the blind - an in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cern­ing the ra­tio be­tween let­ters and sounds.

Words had been in­ves­ti­gated con­tain­ing al­to­gether 30,828 let­ters, and it was found that they con­tained only 25,651 sounds, or 16.7 per­cent less than the num­ber of let­ters.

At­ten­tion was then di­rected to the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the ty­pog­ra­phy of the Line Al­pha­bet. Hor­i­zon­tal lines would re­quire types the same size as those em­ployed at present.

Oblique lines re­quire types only 2/3 as large, and ver­ti­cal lines and vow­els only one third the size. As point-tongue let­ters and vow­els oc­curred more fre­quently than the other el­e­ments - sen­tences writ­ten in the raised sym­bols would take up less space than if the types were all of the usual size.

If the prin­ci­pal of Con­trac­tion were em­ployed, the types for poin­ttongue let­ters would take up no more space in their elon­gated form than when they were writ­ten small; and, as they con­sti­tuted 74 per­cent of all our con­so­nants the sav­ing of space would be so im­mense that I haz­arded the opin­ion that works printed in this way would oc­cupy less than a third of the space oc­cu­pied in their present books.

I took up a sen­tence from one of their books and found it to con­tain 58 let­ters.

In their way it re­quired 58 char­ac­ters

In full pho­net­i­cal writ­ing there were needed 62 char­ac­ters.

In the con­tracted form 33 char­ac­ters.

In the con­tracted form then only half the num­ber of types would be em­ployed, and the space would be re­duced by one half if the types were all of the usual size. But 74 per­cent of them would be only one-third the usual size so that an im­mense gain would re­sult.

Econ­omy would then dic­tate that the vast ma­jor­ity of works pro­duced should be in this type, and that the other should be prin­ci­pally used as a means of teach­ing or­thog­ra­phy.

One or two of the Trustees were quite ex­cited and haz­arded the re­mark “Why not throw over­board the old type?” I replied that that was a ques­tion to be set­tled by teach­ers of the Blind. That we brought for­ward the al­pha­bet for spe­cial uses and that it need not in­ter­fere with ex­ist­ing meth­ods of print­ing for the Blind.

The Trustees came up one by one, shook me warmly by the hand, stated that they were so over­whelmed by what they had heard and seen, that they would say noth­ing, but that I should hear from them again soon. With much love. Your af­fec­tion­ate son, Aleck

The Bell Let­ters are an­no­tated by Brian Wood, cu­ra­tor, Bell Home­stead Na­tional His­toric Site.

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