English Phonotypic Alphabet

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Letters of the English phonotypic Alphabet
Additional letters for other languages in 1845.
The American version of the alphabet of 1855, as reprinted in a medical dictionary in 1871
An early version of the alphabet, 1843

The English Phonotypic Alphabet is a phonetic alphabet developed by Sir Isaac Pitman and Alexander John Ellis originally as an English language spelling reform.[1] Although never gaining wide acceptance, elements of it were incorporated into the modern International Phonetic Alphabet.[2]

It was originally published in June 1845.[3] Subsequently, adaptations were published which extended the alphabet to the German, Arabic, Spanish, Tuscan, French, Welsh, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese and Sanskrit languages.[4]


The English Phonotypic Alphabet was a phonotype, which is a phonetic form of printing derived from the Greek root "phon-" for voice and "-typ" for type.[5][6] As such, Pitman and Ellis gave their alphabet the alternative name of Phonotypy or, even more phonetically, Fonotypy. It was designed to be the print form extension of Pitman Shorthand, a form of abbreviated phonetic handwriting.[7] It is closely associated with Phonetic Longhand, which is the handwritten, or script, form of Phonotypy.[8]


The philosophical case for the English Phonotypic Alphabet was made by Alexander John Ellis , who conducted an extensive study of the problems with English orthography, which he published in his treatise Plea for Phonetic Spelling, or the Necessity of Orthographic Reform, in 1848.[9] Learned societies such as the London Philological Society and education journals such as The Massachusetts Teacher debated the arguments for reform and the utility of the English Phonotypic Alphabet.[10][11]

Unexpectedly, when the English Phonotypic Alphabet was trialled to teach literacy, it was discovered that after learning to read & write, students effortlessly transitioned their literacy skills to traditional English orthography. This also gave purpose to the English Phonotypic Alphabet being used as a transitional mechanism to improve the teaching of literacy.[12][13]


The letters are as follows (with some approximations to accommodate Unicode)

Late 1843 (English)[edit]

At this stage, long vowels had a cross-bar, and short vowels did not

Long vowels

Ɨ /iː/, E /eɪ/, A /ɑː/, Ɵ /ɔː/, Ʉ /oʊ/?, ᗻ (for some fonts ᗼ) /uː/

Short vowels

I /ɪ/, ⵎ /ɛ/, Ʌ /æ/, O /ɒ/, U /ʌ/, ᗯ /ʊ/

(the letter for /ʊ/ was like ⟨Ɯ⟩ but with the middle stem not so tall as the others, and did not have a serif at the bottom right)


Ɯ /juː/ (like Iᗯ), ⅄ /aɪ/ (like ɅI) , Ȣ /aʊ/ (like Oᗯ)?

Reduced ('obscure') vowels

Ǝ /ə/, /ᵊ/


P B, T D, Є J /tʃ dʒ/, K G

F V, Θ Δ /θ ð/, S Z, Σ Σ /ʃ ʒ/,

L R, M N, И /ŋ/, Y W H.


Front Back
Close Ɛɛ• •ᗯɯ
Near-close Ii• •Ꞷꞷ
Open-mid Ee• Uu•Oo
Near-open Aɑ• Āᶐ•Ɵɵ

Diphthongs beginning with an unrounded vowel
Close •Աᶙ

Dipthongs ending with an unrounded vowel
Front Back
Close-mid ᗩa•
Near-open •ⵚơ
Open ┼ᶖ•
Dipthongs ending with a rounded vowel
Front Back
Close-mid •𐐗ɷ
Open రȣ•
Pulmonic section
Labial Coronal Dorsal Laryngeal
Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal •Mm •Nn •И̡ŋ
Plosive Pp•Bb Tt•Dd Cc•Gg
Sibilant affricate Єꞔ•Jj
Sibilant fricative Ss•Zz Σʃ•𐅠ʒ
Non-sibilant fricative Ff•Vv ⅂ҽ•Ƌꞛ Hh•
Approximant •Rr •Yy
Lateral approximant •Ll
Co-articulated section
Labial-velar •Ww

Teaching Literacy[edit]

The first page of the Longley Primer, shows children the letters of the Phonotypic alphabet so they can learn the associated sounds.

The ultimate objective of the English Phonotypic Alphabet was to improve literacy levels; as such, to demonstrate its efficacy, it was trialled for teaching literacy in many different settings. It was mainly tried in schools with children but also illiterate inmates of workhouses, reformatories and jails and by missionaries in Africa, China & India. In 1849, its potential was shown when 1,300 Mancunian illiterates were taught to read and write in only a few months.[14]

These trials culminated in the adoption of the English Phonotypic Alphabet in two public school districts in the United States: - Waltham, Massachusetts, between 1852 & 1860 and Syracuse, New York , between 1850 & 1866. Both districts used a variant of the English Phonotypic Alphabet known as the Cincinnati Phonotypy or the American Phonetic Alphabet.[15] This type was used by Longley Brothers to publish a set of reading-books: - a first phonetic reader, a second phonetic reader, and a transition reader.[16][17][18]


Cover of the Second Phonetic Reader in Phonotypy

In the 1852-53 annual report of Waltham's school committee, the chairman, Reverend Thomas Hill, reported the effect of Phonotypy on the 800 pupils within the ten schools: –[19]

"It has been proved in repeated experiment that if a child upon his first learning his letters, is taught the Phonetic Alphabet, and is confined to Phonetic books for the first six to eight months of schooling, he will at the end of the first year's schooling read common print and spell in common spelling better than children will ordinarily do at the end of four or five year's instruction."[20]


Since a child learns literacy in Phonotypy, this page of the Transition Reader explains to the child why they need to change alphabet.

Bothe's analysis of the course of study for the Syracuse school district measured the improvement from using Phonotypy: -

In 1855, before the introduction of the transitional alphabet, the student was expected to finish reading Webb's Second Reader by the end of the third grade. In 1858, the first year in which phonetic texts appeared in the course of study, Webb's Second Reader was entirely completed two-thirds through the second grade (four trimesters gained).[21]


Elias Longley, author of The Phonetic Readers in Phonotypy.

Dr Edwin Leigh extensively practised using Phonotypy to teach literacy. He became persuaded of its efficacy and a passionate advocate but failed to convince his own St. Louis school district to adopt it. He concluded that Phonotypy was not widely accepted because parents, teachers, and district officials could not understand the orthography themselves.[22]

2nd Phonetic Reader - The teacher's notes explain the importance of comprehension as children learn to read more quickly with Phonotypy.

Phonotypy had never been designed as a transitionary mechanism to attain literacy in standard English; instead, people had only realised it could be used this way after it was launched. Subsequently, Leigh designed a successor, Pronouncing Orthography, which was explicitly designed for this purpose, and to this end, it superseded Phonotypy as a transitory orthography toward literacy.[23]


  1. ^ Daniels, Peter T. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. p. 831. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  2. ^ Coulmas, Florian (12 March 1999). "English Phonotypic Alphabet". The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Wiley. ISBN 0-631-21481-X.
  3. ^ "Completion of the Phonotypic Alphabet". The Phonotypic Journal. 4 (42). Bath: Phonographic Institution: 105–106. June 1845.
  4. ^ "Extension of the Phonotypic Alphabet". The Phonotypic Journal. 4 (43). Bath: Phonographic Institution: 121–123. June 1845.
  5. ^ "Word Root: typ (Root)". Membean. Retrieved 13 January 2024.
  6. ^ "Word Root: phon (Root)". Membean. Retrieved 13 January 2024.
  7. ^ Pitman & St. John 1969, pp. 79–80, Chapter 6 - Four Centuries of Spelling and Alphabet Reform.
  8. ^ Longley, Elias [Secretary of the American Phonetic Association] (1878). The Phonetic Educator: Devoted to Phonography and the Spelling Reform. Vol. I. Cincinnati, Ohio: Phonetic Publishing Company (published 1 December 1878). p. 61.
  9. ^ Ellis 1848, pp. 1–195.
  10. ^ Blake, F.N. (1 March 1850). "Spelling Reform". The Massachusetts Teacher. III (3): 83–85 – via Internet Archive.
  11. ^ Marshall 2020, p. 2"...Britain's greatest nineteenth century phoneticians, Alexander John Ellis (1814-1890) and Henry Sweet (1845-1912), were frequent contributors to the journal. Hailed as the man 'responsible for laying the foundations of phonetic studies in Britain' , Ellis was an excellent speaker and consecutively delivered the first three annual presidential addresses to the Society, the first of which was in 1872."
  12. ^ Hill, Thomas (3 July 1856). "Phonotypy as a Reading Reform". The Four Ways of Teaching to Read: An Address Delivered Before the Ohio Teachers' Association, July 3rd, 1856. Cincinnati: Longley Brothers. pp. 14–15.
  13. ^ Withers 1874, pp. 59–76, SECTION (4) English Spelled as Pronounced, a Means of Attaining the Present Reading and Spelling more easily. Experiments in Teaching.
  14. ^ Pitman & St. John 1969, p. 85, Chapter 6 - Four Centuries of Spelling and Alphabetic Reform.
  15. ^ Bothe 1967, p. 38.
  16. ^ Longley 1855.
  17. ^ Longley & 1851 1st Reader.
  18. ^ Longley & 1851 2nd Reader.
  19. ^ Hill 1889, p. 186, cited Reverend Thomas Hill (1st June 1853) as Chairman in the annual report of the Waltham School Committee"..We tested it thoroughly for six or seven years in the town of Waltham, Massachusetts, which then had about 800 children in the public schools. The effect on the school life of the town was very marked...experience has demonstrated that there is no means so efficient as the use of simple reading-books printed in a truly phonetic manner...when the pupil can read fluently phonetic English, he requires but a few weeks to learn to read the ordinary spelling."
  20. ^ Pitman & St. John 1969, p. 85, Chapter 6; - Four Centuries of Spelling and Alphabetic Reform...cited the Waltham School District annual school report of 1852-1853 of the school committee where Reverend Hill was Chairman.
  21. ^ Bothe 1967, pp. 55–56, Section (4) - Syracuse, New York.
  22. ^ Leigh 1864, p. 3, Reasons why Phonotypy Failed..The causes of this ill success are many and obvious. Among them may be mentioned........ Fonotypy's departure from common orthography; changing the forms and outlines and spellings of English words, thus offending the eye and arousing the prejudices of the unlettered and the literary; apparently compelling the learner to master two languages, the phonetic and the English; requiring him to become familiar with the wrong spellings in order to learn the right, and to acquire an entirely new language in order to learn the common print. It was hard for men to believe that two languages (as it seemed to them) could be learned more easily than one, and the best way to learn to spell was first to spell wrong..."
  23. ^ Leigh 1864, p. 6, Leigh's Plan for an Alternative to Orthography.


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