George Bernard Shaw had strong views on English spelling, and instituted a fund for the promotion of a project to reform it. The royalty that poured in after the success of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady was dedicated to the support of this goal.
Shaw willed a part of his estate to a trust to promote an alphabet that would provide simple, phonetic orthography for the English language to replace the difficulties of the conventional spelling. Apart from it being phonetic, Shaw’s other main criterion was that it should be distinct from the Latin alphabet so as to avoid the impression that the new spellings were simply “misspellings”.
Shaw saw use of the Latin alphabet for writing English as a great waste of time, energy and paper, so in his will he stipulated that a competition should be held to create a new writing system for English and made provision for a prize of £500. The competition took place in 1958 and the winner, Kingsley Read, developed what was to become the Shaw or Shavian alphabet.
My impulse on hearing of this was to suggest that the most effective single measure would be the abolition of capital letters. After comparing the use of capital letters in different languages of the world, I concluded that we could take this step without any qualms.
There are several major languages that don’t use capitals. Chinese, the world’s most widely spoken language, has none. How can one create capital letters to correspond to those elaborate ideograms?
Arabic, likewise, uses no capital letters. The alphabet is written using strokes and curves and dots. Arabic calligraphy, a major art form, distinctive of Arabic culture, has evolved from it.
Indian languages, many of them among the top 10 languages of the world in terms of number of speakers, do not use capitalization.
Those languages that do use capital letters have differing rules. In German, all nouns are capitalized. French differs from English in writing the names of months and days of the week without upper case initial letters.
An interesting feature of English is the use of the upper case “I” for the first person singular. Why should you use a capital letter to refer to yourself? “I” is from “ich” of older English, which is related to Latin “ego”. The pronoun that is capitalized in German is not “ich” but “Sie”, which means “you” in singular and plural. Russian has the same feature. In formal writing in Polish and Czech, all pronouns referring to the addressee are capitalized.
Many writers in the past have been known to play with typefaces and page layout in their books.
We have seen advertisements in India in which English words are capped with a line above to resemble Sanskrit. Alice in Wonderland has a poem, “A Mouse’s Tale”, which appears on the page as a block of print, zigzagging down the page, and narrowing into the shape of a tail.
Tristram Shandy has a blank page for the reader’s use to construct his or her own description of a character. The American poet, E.E. Cummings, wrote whole poems without using upper case letters. His name was often spelt e e cummings.
With the widespread use of computers, there are changes in the rules.
Today you can have a capital letter in the middle of a word. This is not limited to established forms such as McDonald or d’Estaing; corporate houses are looking for novelty in their logos and brand names. FedEx, iPod and eBay are examples. Such forms are called camel case, as the capital letter in the middle reminds you of the hump of a camel.
The term can also refer to abbreviations such as PoW and PhD, in which the middle letter is lower case.
Computer users have to be case-conscious, because the IDs and passwords they use are often case-sensitive.
Specifications for passwords sometimes require you to include “at least one numeral and one capital letter”, and specify a maximum length. They advise you not to write down your password. I have created several arcane passwords to access different websites. There must be two dozen of my cryptic passwords floating about in cyberspace, looking for their parent IDs.
Shaw’s will was contested by some of the other beneficiaries. The court declared it invalid on a legal technicality. An out-of-court settlement brought £8,300 to the trust, just 2% of what Shaw intended. In 1962, Penguin brought out Androcles and the Lion with the text in the Shaw alphabet in parallel with ordinary English spelling. However, the new alphabet was a total departure from established spelling, and did not catch on.
Click here to read all of V.R. Narayanaswami’s previous columns
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org