1. Spence's spelling reforms

2. Spence's countermarked coins


Thomas Spence and Spelling Reform

by Anthea Fraser Gupta and Joan Beal

What was Spensonean spelling?

Spence published a lot of his work in his own spelling system, which, like him, we will call 'Spensonean' . Sometimes he published a piece both in normal spelling and in Spensonean, sometimes only in normal spelling, and sometimes only in Spensonean. Even those who sympathesised with his political views disliked the Spensonean spelling, which they saw as something that just made reading unnecessarily difficult. For example, one of his sympathisers, Charles Hall, wrote to him (June 9 1802):

I cannot conceive what should induce you to disguise your work with such a whimsical kind of Spelling, which renders it so difficult to read, that I could more easily read a book in four or five dead or foreign languages, than I could read yours in my native tongue. You say that it is not formed from mere vulgar and uncertain sound, but is systematic. But to acquire a system so as to use it readily requires too much time, for the reading a single work.

No-one understood it at the time. They had never seen anything like this. Spence invented a way of showing how English sounded before the International Phonetic Alphabet had been developed. Dictionaries before this often showed which syllables were stressed or had brief indications of how words were pronounced, but phonetic transcription simply didn't exist.

Even nowadays, when Spence's political views are taken more seriously than they once were, not many people know anything about his effort at spelling reform. Not many people know that in 1775 Spence published the first dictionary to give the pronunciation of every word in parentheses after the headword, just as is usual in many modern dictionaries to this day. Spence got the idea from a proposal made by Thomas Sheridan in 1761, but Spence produced his dictionary, The Grand Repository of the English Language, in 1775, five years before Sheridan's much more famous dictionary with pronunciations came out.

What does it look like?

For the first version of his alphabet, used only in his dictionary, Spence invented new letters. The blocks for these letters were cut by Spence's friend, Thomas Bewick, the Newcastle engraver, who was later to become famed for his woodcuts. Later on Spence adapted his alphabet so that it could be printed with ordinary letters. Just as a modern dictionary does, he began with a list of symbols and words illustrating their sounds, shown below.

Is it any good?

David Abercrombie first brought Spence to the attention of linguists in 1948, in a paper about several early 'forgotten phoneticians'. No-one studied his spelling system again until one of us (Anthea, under her maiden name of 'Shields') did a Masters thesis on him in 1973, and then published an article based on it in 1974. After that no-one studied it until the other one of us (Joan) did her PhD on him, and published a book based on that in 1999.

Is Spence's phonetics any good? Yes, it is very good indeed. Spence's dictionary is a usable and reliable pronouncing dictionary that supplies accurate transcriptions of English words. We can make sense of it now and use it (as Joan does in her book) to help us understand how English was pronounced in the eighteenth century. His system is almost as good as the systems found in modern dictionaries, and better than anything there was before him.

Have a look at the opening page of Spence's dictionary below. You could still use this as a pronunciation guide today.

The main difference from a modern guide to pronunciation is in unstressed syllables. In English a lot of vowels in unstressed syllables have a 'reduced' vowel, usually either a 'schwa' (the sound at the beginning of 'about') or a 'short i' (as at the end of 'pretty'). Not all accents of English are the same in what they do with these unstressed syllables. In many of the unstressed syllables (such as the first vowel of 'abaft' and the last of 'abandon'), Spence uses the symbol used for the vowel of 'sit'. This is something that those of us who have worked on Spence's pronunciation have discussed quite a bit.

Apart from this, you could use most of Spence's pronunciations as a guide to this day, as you would see of you compare them to a modern dictionary's pronunciations. You might notice that in some words, Spence's pronunciations are more like the pronunciations given for modern American English, because in the eighteenth century it was regarded as better to pronounce the /r/ sound at the end of words like 'Abbreviature'. This /r/ is no longer pronounced in most accents from England, so does not appear in pronunciation guides using British English.

Abercrombie (and some of Spence's friends) thought that Spence's spellings showed his northern origins. Spence thought he was supplying the 'best' pronunciation of the time, and on the whole his dictionary gives what was regarded as the 'best' careful pronunciation of his day by others as well. But Spence was born and brought up in Newcastle, in the far north of England, and his parents were from Scotland. One area that does show his northern background is that, like some people from the north of England today, he uses the same vowel in the word STRUT as in the words FOOT and PUT (his example word above is 'tun'). We don't know exactly how this sound was pronounced by Spence, and there were many different ways of pronouncing these vowels in different words in the eighteenth century, just as there are today.

Why did he do it?

Spence believed that one of the obstacles to social equality was social difference in pronunciation. The solution to this was to ensure that everyone pronounced words correctly (George Bernard Shaw had the same idea a century later).

Spence thought that correct pronunciation could be achieved by reforming English spelling so that the pronunciation was transparent from the written form. Wider literacy was also desirable, and a systematic spelling would help learners of all kinds.

Many writers have thought that improving pronunciation will lead to people being better, while others (more realistically, perhaps) merely think it will allow people to advance in society. Spence went even further than this. He thought that bringing about social reform so that everyone was equal would bring about a time of peace, plenty and equality -- the Millennium believed in by some Christians, which signalled the return of Christ to the world. Eliminating inequalities in speech, by ensuring that everyone had the same correct pronunciation was, to Spence, as much a part of this as land reform was. Spelling reform, like land reform, would bring about equality. Spence thought he could be the prophet of the millennium. As he said in one of his Pig's Meat publications:

I was fully convinced that, if ever there be a millennium, or heaven upon earth, it can only exist under the benignSYSTEM of SPENSONIA.

And here is the same message, in a version of his own alphabet, at the end of his Supplement to the History of Robinson Crusoe (and my transliteration).



References and further reading

Abercrombie, David. 1948. Forgotten Phoneticians. Transactions of the Philological Society, 1-34.

Beal, Joan. 1999. English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spence's 'Grand Repository of the English Language'. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beal, Joan. 2004 An Autodidact’s Lexicon: Thomas Spence’s Grand Repository of the English Language (1775). In J. Coleman & McDermott, A. (eds.) Dictionary History and Historical Lexicography, Lexicographica Series Major. Tübingen: Neumeyer, 63-70.

Uglow, Jenny. 2006. Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. London: Faber. [lots in it about Spence]

Shields, Anthea Fraser. 1974. Thomas Spence and the English Language. Transactions of the Philological Society, 33-64.

Spence, Thomas. 1775. The Grand Repository of the English Language. T. Saint: Newcastle upon Tyne. [there is a facsimile published by Scolar press, in addition to the two surviving copies, one in Boston, Mass., and one in Newcastle upon Tyne].

Spence, Thomas. ?1795. Pigs' meat; or, lessons for the swinish multitude. . The third edition Vol. 1. London. [Based on information from English Short Title Catalogue. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale Group.
< galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO>]

Spence, Thomas. 1782. A s'upl'im'int too thi Histire ov Robinsin Kruzo, being th'i h'ist'ire 'ov Kruzonea, or R'ob'ins'in Kruzo'z il'ind....[note that this title, suitable for a modern computer, does not reproduce Spence's alphabet]. T. Saint: Newcastle upon Tyne. [Based on information from English Short Title Catalogue. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale Group. <galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO>]

Refer to article as: 
(c) Gupta, Anthea Fraser & Joan Beal. 2007. Thomas Spence and Spelling Reform.www.personal.leeds.ac.uk/%7Eengafg/spencelg.htm

Beal, J. 2002 English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spence's "Grand Repository of the English Language" (Oxford University Press) contains an lots of contextual material. The introductory essay provides an overvew of Thomas Spence's 'Life and Works'. Click below

beale 9780198237815.PDF
PDF File [95.7 KB]



Spence’s Countermarked Tokens


by Alan Judd


first published in the Condor Society Journal


Whichever way you look at it Thomas Spence was a remarkable man. You don’t have to have any sympathy for his political objectives to wonder at a self taught, working class boy, who invented a phonetic language, became a teacher of English, conceived a plan for property redistribution and radical political reform and produced a most extraordinary series of Conder tokens. His ideas lived on many years after his death in 1814 and clearly influenced 19th century thinkers such as Robert Owen of New Lanark fame.


Much has been written about Spence’s life, and I can advance nothing of consequence, other than to add as a public record my admiration for the man.


One of the areas of his token production that does not gain much attention is his remarkable series of countermarks, covered by Robert Thompson in his excellent and imaginative British Numismatic Journal article in 19691. Thompson lists twenty seven punches, and though he illustrates Spence’s token dies he does not illustrate examples of the countermarks. The punches were combined in various ways to produce political slogans. I have some 100 Spence countermarks in my collection, about 80% acquired as a single group a couple of years ago from John Whitmore. My initial research into that group suggested they form part of the extensive collection of such pieces listed by Batty.


The countermarked pieces are rare. I have an interesting example struck on Dalton & Hamer Middlesex 676, the only piece I have struck on a token, and struck on a Thomas Spence token to boot! I have one on an evasion (L. GORDIUS REYS, DELECT TATRUS, 1781, Atkins 333, Cobwright G.1040/D.0090, stamped PAROCHIAL across the bust and LIBERTY across the harp); I have a particularly nice example, courtesy of Emyr George, on a 1797 ‘Cartwheel’ penny (obverse struck NO, LANDLORDS, YOU FOOLS, SPENCE’S PLAN, FOR EVER); ten on blanks and the rest mainly on counterfeit halfpennies of George III. I have split this article into two sections and in the first I will simply illustrate 25/27 punches. (If you have a piece with the individual punches ‘THE’ or ‘EVERY’ I would be pleased to see them.)


The Spence Countermarks

(click below)


A remarkable man READY[1].doc
Microsoft Word document [2.2 MB]


The second part of this article will illustrate interesting countermarked pieces from my collection.

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