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Visible Speech
Type Alphabet
Spoken languages ?
Created by Alexander Melville Bell
Time period 1867 to the present
Sister systems 85
Unicode range U+E780 to U+E7FF in the ConScript Unicode Registry
ISO 15924 Visp
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.
Illustrations of Visible Speech
chart of English sounds
On the Nature and Use of Visible Speech

Visible speech is the writing system used by Alexander Melville Bell, who was known internationally as a teacher of speech and proper elocution and an author of books on the subject. The system is composed of symbols that show the position and movement of the throat, tongue, and lips as they produce the sounds of language, and it is a type of phonetic notation. The system was used to aid the deaf in learning to speak. Bell's son Alexander Graham Bell learned the symbols, assisted his father in giving public demonstrations of the system and mastered it to the point that he later improved upon his father's work. Eventually, Alexander Graham Bell became a powerful advocate of visible speech and oralism in the United States. The money he earned from his patent of the telephone helped him to pursue this mission.


The early years

In 1867, Alexander Melville Bell published the book "Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics". This book contains information about the system of symbols he created that, when used to write words, indicated pronunciation so accurately, that it could even reflect regional accents[1]. A person reading a piece of text handwritten in Melville Bell's system of characters could accurately reproduce a sentence the way it would be spoken by someone with a foreign or regional accent. In his demonstrations, Melville Bell employed his son, Alexander Graham Bell to read from the visible speech transcript of the volunteer's spoken words and would astound the audience by saying it back exactly as the volunteer had spoken it. A few samples of the writing system invented by Melville Bell may be seen in the right hand column of this page. These images depict Melville Bell's intention of creating a script in which the characters actually look like the position of the mouth when speaking them out loud. The system is useful not only because its visual representation mimicks the physical act of speaking, but because it does so, these symbols may be used to write words in any language, hence the name "Universal Alphabetics"[2]. Melville Bell's system was effective at helping deaf people improve their pronunciation, but his son, Graham Bell decided to improve upon his father's invention by creating a system of writing that was even more accurate and employed the most advanced technology of the time.

A fresh take on pronunciation for the deaf

Alexander Graham Bell later devised another system of visual cues that also came to be known as visible speech, yet this system did not use symbols written on paper to teach deaf people how to pronounce words. Instead, Graham Bell's system involved the use of a spectrograph, a device that makes "visible records of the frequency, intensity, and time analysis of short samples of speech"[1]. The spectrograph device translates sounds emitted from the mouth into readable patterns. This system was based on the idea that the eye should be able to read patterns of vocalizations in much the same way that the ear translates these vocalizations into meaning.


The idea of the use of a spectrograph to translate speech into a visual representation was created in the hopes of enabling the deaf to use a telephone[3]. If the sounds could be translated into something readable, then a deaf person at the receiving end could then read out the pattern of speech to determine its meaning without having to hear what was said. The spectrograph readings could also be used to teach pronunciation by having a person speak into the spectrograph and watch a small television-like screen to monitor the precison of their utterances[3].


  1. ^ a b Potter, Kopp, Kopp, 1966. <1> Visible Speech.
  2. ^ Melville Bell, 1867.<2> Visible Speech:The Science of Universal Alphabetics.
  3. ^ a b Kopp, 1967. <3> Visible Speech Manual.
  • Kopp. Visible Speech Manual Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1967. ISBN HV 2490 K83+
  • Potter, Kopp, Kopp. Visible Speech Dover Publications, 1966. ISBN TK 6500 P86 1966.
  • Bell, Alexander Melville. Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics Simkin, Marshall & CO, London, 1867. ISBN F65 +B41

External links



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