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The Victorian Internet

It is easy to forget (for my generation, anyways) that attempts to make language more efficient did not start with text-messaging. In a piece for the December 1900 Ladies' Home Journal, John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. predicted that the letters C, X and Q would be deemed unnecessary in the 20th century:

There will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.

The five-needle telegraph invented by Wheatstone and Cooke in the 1830s saw a similar efficiency that one might exploit. From the book The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage:

However, the limited number of possible combinations with the five-needle design meant that only twenty letters were included in the telegraphic alphabet; thus "C," "J," "Q," "U," "X," and "Z" were omitted. Although this design required separate wires between sender and receiver for each needle, it could transmit messages quickly without the need for a codebook.

See also:
What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years (Ladies Home Journal, 1900)
The Next Hundred Years (Milwaukee Herold und Seebote, 1900)


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Reader Comments (13)

Can't help but notice the failure of top-down attempts to impose consistency on language (Esperanto, anyone?) and the unpredictable effects of technology: Radio and TV shrank our attention span, computers chopped it up even finer with multitasking, and cellphones brought about the selective shedding of letters (alphanumeric miscegenation, anyone?) with texting.

June 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermin0taur

U R so 1337! LOL! BRB.

June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. Brown

One of my fellow seminary students was a high school teacher and he was telling me about how kids were handing in whole essays written in l33t. They'd invariably get them handed back with the command to rewrite it in english ^_^

June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCory Gross

Some top-down spelling improvements did happen, though. That's why Americans spell words like rationalize, color, catalog, center, check, skillful, plow, and draft, instead of rationalise, colour, catalogue, centre, cheque, skilful, plough, and draught. The American spellings make a lot more sense to me. Let's not even get started on British placenames, which are almost entirely irregular.

June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

The problem with Esperanto is that it has turned into, for all practical purposes, a religious cult. Either you love the language & feel that it should never be changed or you are an outcast. Esperantists are very defensive about their language to the point where they almost resemble scientologists.

In my mind, Ido (Esperanto without a lot of the quirks) died the moment that its most passionate supporter (Le Coutreat? I'm rusty with my names) was killed in an auto accident.

Novial, Occidental, Glosa, IALA... Nice tries but, by then, English prevailed & there really was no further use in trying.

The only way an universal language would ever flourish is if English ever fell out of favor for a very long period of time. Every few years, there's the usual Chicken Little ("Japanese is the new English" or "Chinese is the new English" or "Arabic is the new English") but it never quite pans out because English is, well, EVERYWHERE & the country whose language in question then falls onto bad times & - surprise surprise - All that talk that, for example, "Hindi is the new English" disappears without a trace.

Esperanto will probably always be the "biggest" universal language but that's like saying that you're the fastest apple pie eater in [fill in some nowhere county here]. It might make you feel special but, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't really count for much.

June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Very interesting post. I wrote something like this because I wanted to get rid of the letter "C." I mean, really, it could be K or S in every situation, except CH. Instead, I proposed CH becomes KH, since KH is so uncommon (khaki could be the exception). Language has always interested me, so thanks for a great post.


June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMasoni

What some people forget is that certain letters can have an aesthetic appeal that other letters don't.

Take the name "DeLaCroix" for example. Without X or C, it would be an drab-looking "DeLaKroi". Under those rules, it would probably also have the capital letters eliminated, making it a very ugly "Delakroi".

June 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Renico

Let's do get onto British place names! They are so fun. Trouble with British place names is they are so old and changed with time, and very few are actually English in the first place.

I'd like the condensed alphabet idea, I keep finding words which are so hard to spell with just our 26 characters, with so many foreign words in my vocabulary. Try making conversation about films where Ubermenche is an important concept, where's my umlaut?, or try saying manana or banjo without a enya. I can't even cope with my American keyboard that has a hash (sharp) where the pound (GBP) should be.

Thanks for digging up all these old articles.


May 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Remember the old SNL skit about the metric alphabet?

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAliasUndercover

Never understood the C-hate. Even if you replace it with K and S where it has those sounds, why not retain "c" by itself for the "ch" sound?

"That's why Americans spell words like rationalize, color, catalog, center, check, skillful, plow, and draft, instead of rationalise, colour, catalogue, centre, cheque, skilful, plough, and draught."

Actually, no. Those spellings were already in use before the Revolution. At most, Webster merely legitimized them. And his proposals (like "frend" for "friend" or "groop" for "group") that weren't in use were ignored.

April 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Try using 'Tj' for the 'ch' sound. It sounds more like it, if you think about it, and by "think about it", I mean "say those two letters together really fast".

Say "Hat Jet" really fast. Does it sound like "hatchet"? You decide...

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTjarlie

"There will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary." Except, of course, when you need to spell "because" or "unnecessary." Oops. LOL

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen A.

Getting rid of C, X, and Q. How quixotic.

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom

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