“A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.” —Ursula K. Le Guin in the introduction to Left Hand of Darkness

In an 1884 article for the journal Reader, Alexander John Ellis, a British mathematician, philologist, and musicologist, writes enthusiastically about a “public experiment” he’d recently witnessed that focused on a new universal alphabet. The performance he describes reads more magic trick than scientific demonstration: a man, standing with his two sons, asks Ellis to pick some words, any words, that are varied and challenging in their pronunciations. The sons leave the room. Ellis clearly relishes in his chance to exercise his wide-ranging knowledge of languages and mastery of phonetics; he speaks a few words of Latin, “pronounced first as at Eton, then as in Italy, and then according to some theoretical notions of how the Latins might have uttered them.” Then some English colloquialisms and German provincialisms, a few examples of “Arabic guttural,” a bit of mispronounced Spanish, and a “variety of shades of vowels and diphthongs.” Pleased with his selection, Ellis sits back and watches as the man translates each word into a series of cryptic symbols, then calls his sons back into the room. What Ellis hears next amazes the critical observer: “Mr. Bell wrote down my queer and purposefully-exaggerated pronunciations and mispronunciations and delicate distinctions in such a manner that his sons, not having heard them, so uttered them as to surprise me by the extremely correct echo of my voice.” He goes on, “Accent, tone, drawl, brevity, indistinctness, were all reproduced with surprising accuracy. Being on the watch, I could, as it were, trace the alphabet in the lips of the readers.”

The Mr. Bell who so impressed Ellis was Alexander Melville Bell, and the universal alphabet he demonstrated is called Visible Speech. [One of his assistant-sons was Alexander Graham Bell, who went on to be a famous elocutionist in his own right, then invented the telephone and founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T).] In the late 19th century, Visible Speech was one of several attempts from leading philologists and phoneticians to produce an alphabet that would be usable across every language in the world. Propelled by an idealistic vision of common communication in an increasingly globalized world, as well as the invention of new communication technologies, these scientists wanted to develop a system of symbols based not on any existing written language, but on the speech-sounds that everyone, everywhere could make. Bell’s symbols fit perfectly into this ambition: instead of being based on arbitrary letterforms distinctive only to certain cultures, the symbols of Visible Speech are visually analogous to the movements of our vocal organs.

I won’t go into the depth and detail that Bell does in his 1867 book, which, thanks to a digitization by Google, you can read in its entirety here. But at its core, the alphabet draws from the idea that all elementary sounds of speech are based on the way the lungs, the larynx, the pharynx, the soft palate, the nose, and the mouth modifies our breath. Bell’s speech symbols visualize this literally, so that the shape of the vowels in the Visible Speech alphabet, for example, are modeled after the shape and modification of the wind passage when you’re saying that vowel. The friction of a consonant may be represented by a symbol depicting the back of the tongue contracting the oral passage between it and the soft palate.

The easiest explanation I’ve found of how the alphabet was drawn is the way Bell described it in 1868 to a class of deaf children (one of the imagined uses for Visible Speech was to teach the people with hearing loss how to speak, pronouncing words out loud with precision without ever having heard them). On a blackboard, Bell sketched the profile of a face, including the “insides of the mouth,” as he put it to the students, then erased all but the lower lip, the point, front, and back of the tongue, and the glottis. The curved lines that remained constitute the Visible Speech symbols for “back,” “front,” “point,” and “voice,” which makes up the basic foundation of the symbol system. Those symbols are then modified and embellished with details—think ligatures on a typeface—so that every articulation of every language is represented. And while Bell acknowledges that all text is, in a way, “visible speech,” his system is a much more precise ledger of what is said orally since it records the actions of the mouth, “irrespective of any employment of them.” It’s a humanist language in the most literal way; while the “th” of English, for example, or the “cz” of Polish are difficult to grasp in other languages, the symbols of Visible Speech apply to everyone with lungs and a larynx.

Physiology aside, the resulting symbols are actually really beautiful:

Tauba Auerbach, Alexander Melville Bell's Visible Speech, Vowels/ Alexander Melville Bell's Visible Speech, Consonants

The reasons behind them are just as sweet: in his book, Bell lists 10 “Special Uses of the Invention of Visible Speech,” which include eradicating illiteracy, teaching the blind to read and the deaf to speak, correcting impediments of speech, preserving disappearing dialects, and of course establishing a universal language. “Without such a medium of self-interpreting letters,” Bell writes, “the establishment of a Universal Language might fairly be deemed an impossibility. By means of Visible Speech, if at all, this Dream of Philosophers will be realized.” Unfortunately, the dream of a universal language was never realized—and in fact, is still being chased, if not with the same degree of organization and scientific fervor as in the 19th century.

I came across Visible Speech shortly after reading a piece in The New York Review of Books called “Listening for the Jabberwock” by Tim Parks. In the essay, Parks laments the fact that translations of poetry, and to a degree all literary writing, often loses the original work’s acoustic, rhythmic patterns of sounds in favor of conforming to the linguistic conventions of the language it’s being translated to. He illustrates his point with an extreme example: that of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” which opens with the lines, “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe/ All mimsy were the borogoves/ And the mome raths outgrabe.” How do you translate a poem like that, which imitates a familiar rhythmic device in poetry but uses words that are mostly nonsense in any language? Of the poem, Parks writes, “The suggestion is that all such poetry is driven to a degree by the inertia of style and convention, that the sound is as decisive as the sense in determining what gets said; indeed, when we ‘run out of sense’ the sound trundles on of its own accord.” His overall point is that patterns of sound are often what make poetry and literature playful, seductive, deceptive, sorrowful, and beautiful, but that those things are difficult if not impossible to translate—particularly if the translator is more concerned with the words than the feelings they evoke. As he puts it early on in the text, “The translator gives priority to the semantic sense, but that sense was also partly guided in the original by what one might call the acoustic inertia of the language.”

The phrase “acoustic inertia,” struck a chord in me; I liked the ring of it, how it seemed to imply a sense of energy and forward propulsion that is echoed in the meaning of the words themselves. It was still stuck my head when I came across a reference to Visible Speech somewhere online. What most drew me to Visible Speech in that first encounter—and what has kept me fascinated with it —is its potential to translate the exact particularities of a dialect from one person’s mouth to another’s. When Bell’s sons read back a translation of a sentence or paragraph written in Visible Speech, they would read it exactly as the original person had said it—accent, intonations, cadence, rhythm, the rise or fall of the voice, “all the possible shades of sound,” as Bell wrote. Bell meant for Visible Speech to be a system of notation “by which all sounds of any dialect might be represented intelligibly to readers of whatever country or tongue.” The incredible thing about the language is its ability to capture that “inertia” of speech so precisely in writing.

As one observer of Bell’s experiment testified, the alphabet could translate pure sounds, no onomatopoeia needed:

“A full sneeze, for example, is a complex operation: it comes among what are called inarticulate sounds; but Mr. Bell writes it down, and, for aught we know, could undertake to furnish every member of the House of Commons with a symbol representative of his own particular sneeze, as distinguished from those of all his colleagues.”

As someone who loves the written word but also loves dialect, colloquialisms, and vernacular, it’s the textualization of sound that makes Visible Speech most appealing to me. Imagine a language where I could take down on paper my dad saying “let’s go to Washington on Saturday” and you could repeat it back to me with his exact Appalachian drawl, an epenthetic ‘r’ in “Warshington” and a dropped ‘a’ in “Saturdy.” Or a language where you could translate the vowel shift of California English, or the collapse of short vowels in Moroccan Arabic. With Visible Speech, each symbol, and each part of the symbol, has meaning and contains explicit instruction for utterance.

But Visible Speech is also language that you could speak without ever actually knowing what you were saying. Bell describes one of his pupils, Theresa Dudley, who was deaf and mute, as not stumbling a “solitary instance” when reading words from several languages translated into Visible Speech. But she also “does not know that she uttered words at all.” In a sense, Visible Speech is a version of translation swung to the opposite side of the pendulum from the approach that Parks argues against, which prioritizes semantics over sound. While you might not understand the meaning of a phrase of Visible Speech translated from another language, you would understand the “harmonic sequence” of a paragraph, or the resonant “chord” of a sentence, to borrow an analogy from Ursula K. Le Guin. Visible Speech prioritizes the sounds of words—the feeling of them in your mouth, the timbre of one’s voice, the expressiveness of tone, the tune of speech—above all else.

Despite what its name suggests, and despite the rich graphic quality of the symbols, Visible Speech puts much more emphasis on sound than it does on sight. This is further emphasized by the fact that, as Alexander Melville Bell argues in his book on the language, it needs to be taught verbally if it was to be understood. Bell’s sons allegedly learned the alphabet in a few days—well enough to perform the demonstration that had such an effect on Ellis. I’ve read the book at least three times and am no closer to knowing Visible Speech than I was when I first saw it.

Despite Ellis’s enthusiastic endorsements, and a persuasive plea to the British government for public funding in the introduction of Bell’s book, Visible Speech never quite took off. It has since faded into obscurity, though it did go on to influence the International Phonetic Alphabet, also based on physiological principles, which is the standardized representation of sounds that is still used by linguists and speech pathologists. Whatever the reasons Bell’s Visible Speech was never funded and never took hold, it’s now a forgotten part of history. Without the animation of sound, Bell’s utopic vision for a universal language is locked up in a cryptic set of symbols that vaguely resemble physiological diagrams, which no one today can read.

Thank you to Jessi Haley for the edit.