A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 96: EPA

Esteemed Norwegian typefoundry Mono­krom (who, of course, designed the fonts used here at Shady Characters), tweeted a while back about a Unicode character called the “Wiggly Exclamation Mark”. Here’s the relevant snippet of text:

Text describing the proposed Unicode "wiggle exclamation mark"
Text describing the proposed Unicode “wiggly exclamation mark”, tweeted by Monokrom and taken from Karl Pentzlin’s 2011 proposal.

I’d never come across this mark before, and some digging revealed that it came not from the Unicode standard itself but rather a proposal to add characters relating to the so-called “English Phonotypic Alphabet”, or EPA.1 The EPA, in turn, is an English spelling reform that was promoted during the 1840s by Isaac Pitman and Alexander John Ellis. Needless to say, Ellis and Pitman failed to make much of a dent in English’s famously obtuse orthography.2 One need only compare the proposed spellings of words like “hwen” (when), “acsent” (accent) and “menʃun” (mention) with their current forms to see how well it all panned out.

Except that isn’t quite the full story. The EPA was not Pitman’s first venture into alternative English spelling models, and another of his endeavours had been considerably more successful. His name may be more familiar to you as the creator of Pitman’s “Stenographic Sound-Hand”, or, more simply, Pitman shorthand, one of the most widely-used English shorthand writing systems.3 Nor was the English Phonotypic Alphabet as abject a failure as it at first appeared. We may not use Pitman and Ellis’s reformed spellings today but the EPA’s descendant, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), is still used to lay out pronunciations in dictionaries and similar publications.4 Here are those same words rendered in the IPA: “wen” (when), “æk.sənt” (accent) and “men.ʃən” (mention). See the resemblance?

So, what of the “wiggly exclamation mark”? Back to the “Second Revised Proposal to encode characters for the English Phonotypic Alphabet (EPA) in the UCS”, the document from which the snippet above was taken. Its author, Karl Pentzlin, had discovered a number of novel punctuation marks associated with the EPA and described how they, along with the modified letterforms that formed the basis of Pitman and Ellis’s new alphabet, could be added to Unicode.

At first, Pitman and Ellis had not seemed to care much about punctuation. Their foundational texts, the Completion of the Phonotypic Alphabet and the Extension of the Phonotypic Alphabet, published respectively in the June and July of 1845, did not mention punctuation at all.5,6 But in January of 1848, in the pages of Pitman’s in-house Fonetic Jurnal,* an unattributed article described the system of punctuation that was to go with the new alphabet.7

Table of characters in the English Phonotypic Alphabet
Table of characters in the English Phonotypic Alphabet, taken from the January 1848 issue of Isaac Pitman’s Phonetic Journal. New punctuation marks, including the “smile”, are at bottom.

Helpfully, many punctuation marks retained their meaning in the EPA: the full stop, colon, semicolon, comma and hyphen all kept their existing appearances and functions. A new mark, the “elision”, was rendered as a high dot (˙) and took the place of the apostrophe, which was repurposed to indicate stressed syllables. Added to these, however, were a battery of more radical marks. To quote that 1848 article,

(⸮) The Query
This is placed before any words or clauses by which a question is asked.
(?) The Doubt
This is placed after any word or statement, concerning which the writer feels some doubt, or which he wishes to call in question. Observe the difference between the doubtful inquiry, “You came last night?” and the usual interrogation “⸮Did you come last night.”
(!) The Call
A mark of exclamation, or simple surprise. Doubled (!!), it indicates great astonishment.
(¡) The Sigh
A Mark of grief or sorrow: placed after a statement which gives the writer pain. Doubled (¡¡), it indicates great affliction.
([wiggly exclamation mark]) The Smile
A mark of mirth or pleasure: placed after a statement which gives the writer pleasure, or produces in him a feeling of amusement; and hence used in place of that expression in the speaker which in common intercourse is meant to indicate, “I was only in joke.” The doubled smile is a downright laugh.

(Some later publications inverted the “smile” mark to give a sarcastic or ironic inflection.1)

These new marks were quite a departure from the otherwise simple spelling reform of the EPA, and I wonder what drove Pitman and Ellis to add them to their new orthography. A rush of blood to the head, perhaps? A desire to remove even more of the ambiguity from printed English, where a ‘!’ can be happy, sad, excited, anxious, or portentous? In the end, their motivations may be less important than the fate of their marks — which was, if you haven’t already guessed, to be consigned to history along with the rest of the EPA. A sad and perhaps undeserved end, but hardly an unexpected one.

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Sadly, this is not a faithful representation of the title of Pitman’s periodical. Pentzlin’s proposal to add EPA characters to Unicode was rejected, so it is not possible to render the title of the Fonetic Jurnal exactly as it was printed — the lower-case ‘o’ should have a small indentation at the bottom. 

6 comments on “Miscellany № 96: EPA

  1. Comment posted by Nancy Gilmartin on

    Thank you. Always interesting!

  2. Comment posted by Steve Minniear on

    Those punctuation marks would have been a lot of fun. Too bad they fell by the wayside. Thanks!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Indeed! I’m amazed that I hadn’t come across them until now.

  3. Comment posted by Long Branch Mike on

    Like First Generation, analogue emoticons. Fascinating.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Yes! A lot of novel punctuation marks try to express emotion more directly than conventional marks. (And most of them fail.)

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