This week we delve into the realms of Shavian Script. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry – it’s certainly one of the wackier fonts out there.
Shavian Script was a typeface created by George Bernard Shaw, who had the intention of reformatting the way we write. Irishman Shaw believed the English language to be inefficient, mainly due to the inconsistency of pronunciation of certain runs of letters. For example, ‘ough’ occurs in ‘cough’, ‘though’ and ‘bought’, but is pronounced differently for each. In order to correct the representation of these sounds within the written format of the language, Shaw looked to create his own typeface, based on similar shorthand styles, such as that developed by his friend Henry Sweet – Sweet Shorthand – upon whom the My Fair Lady character was allegedly based.
Eventually, Shavian Script came to fruition. It had 40 characters with no separate upper or lower case; unusually, it was produced in 13pt, unlike the 8, 10 and 12pt sizes that are typically produced used. As though creating your own typeface and converting the population of a country to its use weren’t mad enough, Shaw called his script the ‘Proposed British Alphabet’, restyling our conventional 26-character attempt as ‘Dr Johnson’s Alphabet’!
In his will Shaw left £100,000 – £367,000 in modern money – to its development and implementation. Sadly for him, though, his legacy didn’t quite go according to plan: the Public Trustee ruled that the establishment of Shavian was not ‘charitable’, and so granted only £8,600 to its development. The remainder of the money was split between the British Museum, RADA and the National Gallery of Ireland, the designated beneficiaries in the event of Shavian not setting the world on fire.
It didn’t, perhaps unsurprisingly. Shaw’s plays are the main element of his body of work that live on but Quikscript, or Second Shaw, is an alternative English alphabet which borrows heavily from Shavian.
There were three known cases of the typeface to be cast; the British Library has one, and so does Stephen Austin and Sons, which printed the only Shavian book to date, a 1962 edition of Androcles and the Lion. The third, of course, is here in the archive of St Bride Foundation – if you’d like to have a look at this particularly rare piece, make sure you ask on one of our guided tours.