Kingsley Read Alphabet Collection

Reference: MS 1103, MS 1387Date: 1903-1978Extent: 18 boxes
In February 1941, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote a preface to Richard Albert Wilson’s The Miraculous Birth of Language, calling for a new, reformed alphabet – one that was easier to read and write, and was more suitable for the printing technology of the 20th Century.

By the time the piece had been published in autumn of the same year, Shaw had already announced his intentions to the public through a letter written to The Times on 14 April, titled A King’s Spelling.  Shaw’s friendships with Isaac James Pitman, the grandson of the creator of Pitman shorthand, and Ronald Kingsley Read (19 Feb 1887–Feb 1975), eventually resulted in the development of the Shavian alphabet.

Read was a former craftsman from the outskirts of Birmingham and was an avid scholar of phonetics, studying the alphabets of Robert Bridges and Henry Sweet throughout the 1930s. Originally the owner of a signwriting business, by the early 1940s he had ceased his work and had begun to experiment with alphabet making, partly in thanks to the commercial disruption caused by the war-time bombing of Birmingham. It was during this time in which Read created his first manual for a new alphabet titled The Symbol. Read had previously been in correspondence with Shaw regarding alphabet reform and had been struck by Shaw’s ground-breaking declaration in The Miraculous Birth of Language.

Shaw maintained his commitment to language reform throughout his life, and after his death his will made provision for Pitman to establish a Shavian Alphabet with help from a grant from The Public Trustee. After some legal dispute, a world-wide competition was announced to design his alphabet, with the aim of producing a system that would be a more economical way of writing and printing the English language. Read was one of four contestants chosen to share the prize money for the alphabet, and eventually became its sole designer. By 1960, after 18 years of refinement, he had produced a 48-character writing system written from left to right with the same numerals and roughly the same punctuation as standard English.

Supporting material included typewriters which could be ordered from the Imperial Typewriter Company, as well as the journal Shaw-script, which was printed using the Shavian alphabet. The Special Collections library also holds a copy of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, accompanied by a parallel text using the Shavian alphabet.


After the extensive testing of Shavian with English speakers around the world, Read modified it by turning it into a version known as ‘Quickscript’, which had more ligatures and appeared more cursive than Shavian in an attempt to make it easier to write by hand.

Just before his death in 1975, Read abandoned the Shavian alphabet completely, and instead chose to finish his work on an enlarged version of the Roman alphabet called ‘Sound-spell’, also known as ‘Readspel’. This was an alphabet constructed of 42 letters, ‘spelling 42 phonemes with perfect constancy and economy of lettering’ and designed to ‘produce an exact spelling of known pronunciations as the most encouraging initial medium in learning to read’.

This collection contains personal papers of Kingsley Read; research notes and cuttings on alphabets and alphabet reform; correspondence from Shaw, I.J. Pitman and others about alphabet reform; drafts of the different stages of Shaw-script; letters and excerpts written in Shaw-script; correspondence about Quickscript and example material; correspondence about and examples of Readspel/Sound-spell; correspondence relating to the transfer of the archive to the University of Reading and the exhibition held in 1972; published material on alphabets and spelling reform; and portrait photographs including Read and Shaw.

Information about the Kingsley Read Alphabet Collection taken from the following sources:

More Information