Phonetics, Temperance and The Swedenborg Whale

18th August 2011

Hello again, back with another update on the progress of the library as well as some of the wonderful things I find along the way. Progress with the digitisation of the library’s contents is going along at a steady pace. While the going can feel quite slow at points, I do note to myself that the task is an incredibly large one and to even make a dent in a collection of this size is something which takes time.

TS Arthur and the Reform of Female Etiquette

I have, however, found some fantastic new (to me at least) texts along the way, by famous characters from the Society’s past. One of my favourite recent discoveries is by TS Arthur (1809 – 1885), an American author, ‘Swedenborgian’, and advocate of the ‘Temperance Movement’. Here is an extract from his Advice to Young Ladies on their Duties and Conduct in Life from around the mid-19th century. I must admit to having a soft spot for this type of literature from the period, as I find it incredibly twee and brilliantly absurd in its out-dated attitudes towards women:

‘A proper regard for time is a thing of great importance, and absolutely necessary to the formation of an orderly habit of doing things. Some persons will waste one hour, and then crowd into the next the duties of both. Of course, the duties are discharged imperfectly. It could not be otherwise. This habit is the parent of much disorder. How often is it the case that a young lady has an engagement to pay some visits with a friend, for whom she is to call at a certain hour. The friend is ready at precisely the time appointed, but the young lady does not make her appearance for thirty or forty minutes. “O dear!” she exclaims, coming in all out of breath, and exhibiting sundry defects in her toilet arrangements, “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting. I got so interested in a book, that I entirely forgot the time until I heard the clock strike the hour at which I was to be here. I have had to throw my clothes on, and no doubt look a perfect fright!” Again, the same young lady is making a visit and become so much interested in her companions that she lets the hour at which she is to take her lesson in French or music go by, leaving her teacher to wait impatiently for her, and neglecting a matter of real importance for the enjoyment, it may be, of a little frivolous chit-chat.’

I feel the text largely speaks for itself but I will say that ‘exhibiting sundry defects in her toilet arrangements’ is one of the greatest, most polite phrases ever to be written in the English language. Funnily enough, TS Arthur was described in less flattering terms by Edgar Allen Poe (another reader of Swedenborg), who accused him of being “uneducated and too fond of mere vulgarities to please a refined taste.”

Isaac Pitman

On a more serious note, I have been working with a number of books linked to Isaac Pitman, another ‘Swedenborgian’ and pioneer of the school of Phonetics. For those who do not know of Isaac Pitman, he is best known for inventing theshorthand writing system which journalists still use today. Less popular was his attempt to create a ‘perfect’ alphabet for the English language – the Phonetic Alphabet – by which he hoped to eradicate what he viewed as ‘absurdities’ in our present system of orthography. There are a lot of examples of Isaac (or Eizak in phonetic English) Pitman’s phonetic alphabet around the Society.

Pitman was a dedicated ‘Swedenborgian’, and wrote a great number of periodicals and newsletters in phonetic English. A great deal of literature concerning Swedenborg was also published by either Pitman, at the Society of Phonetics in Bath, or his brother, a bookseller in London; these are all written in phonetic English, or standard English with parallel phonetic translations. I have even seen letters Pitman has sent to various members of the Society all written in the phonetic alphabet; the paper they come on has a little explanation printed at the head of each letter on how the alphabet works, which must have been quite a costly thing to do at the time. While I would love to show some examples of the phonetic alphabet (it reads a little bit like attempting to speak when incredibly drunk) the characters cannot be represented on a computer. I do however have a link to Pitman’s treatise on phonology which can be found here.

The Swedenborg Whale

On a final note, we have had a new (albeit small) entry into the Archives; an extract on Swedenborg from a book entitled A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, which fully confirms my belief that Swedenborg seems to crop up in the strangest of places. The book deals with the history of medicine relating to medical oddities, such as spontaneous human combustion and other phenomena including so called ‘breast serpents’. How Swedenborg fits into this text is through one of my favourite stories about his life – The Swedenborg Whale. To cut a long story short, while he was still a scientist, one of Swedenborg’s friends came into possession of some bones, which were purportedly those of a giant. Swedenborg came to inspect the bones and discovered that they were actually those of a whale. An interest in these particular specimens carried on until modern times, when the bones which Swedenborg studied were proven to belong to a subspecies of whale, now thought to be extinct; and so the carcass was dubbed the ‘Swedenborg Whale’ (reconstruction pictured). Swedenborg himself composed a poem on these bones, which I can now reproduce here in English translation, taken from A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities:

From Gothia were recently sent the mighty limbs of a giant,

But in spite of their size, they lack the power of reason.

Another plant grown in this fertile soil has now come to Uppsala;

While the former had bodily strength, he has that of mind.

Adopt a Book

My next update will hopefully include some pictures of texts from the archive I have been handling, all of which will be included within the adopt-a-book scheme. Oh yes, and as a very final note, I apologise for not supplying any more information on the adopt-a-book scheme this update. We are still very much working out the logistics of it, so I will include more information as and when we ‘iron the wrinkles out’ so to speak.  Thanks very much for reading and I do hope you have found this interesting.

Posted by Alex Murray

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