Trinity Term 2022 Online Exhibition

Written Sounds at St John’s College Library

by Petra Hofmann, College Librarian

Since the invention of the first writing system in the late 4th millennium BCE, reading and writing had largely been the prerogative of very limited groups of society. In the UK, the ability to read and write has become commonplace only in very recent history. Around 1500 the assumed literacy rate in Germany and England was still only around 11% (Calder).  In England, the literacy rate jump from approx. 60% (males) and 40% (females) to 97% of all adults during the nineteenth century (Lloyd). Today the literacy rate in the UK is of over 99% (World Population Review). This is an extraordinary achievement even though 16.4% of adults are having “very poor literacy skills” (National Literacy Trust). St John’s College holds manuscripts and early printed books that provide us with glimpses into the history of literacy before it had become widespread. The Library staff would like to introduce three of these as part of the exhibition in honour of Professor Maggie Snowling’s tenure as President of St John’s College.

The First Vocal Tract Diagram

Al-Sakkākī, Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm, MS 122

In the Arabic-speaking world, the 13th-century Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm (The Key to the Sciences) composed by al-Sakkākī (1160-1229) was an early seminal work on linguistics, which discusses morphology, syntax, and “stylistics and theory of imagery” (Heinrichs). Among St John’s College’s small but fine collection of Oriental manuscripts is a 14th-century copy of al-Sakkākī’s work. Like Al-Sakkākī St John’s manuscript is from the Central Asian Khwārazm region, today part of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Al-Sakkākī begins his work with a brief section on articulation. In contrast to classical and medieval Western grammarians, al-Sakkākī was indeed concerned how and especially where in the mouth language sounds were produced. His work includes “the first known diagram of the vocal tract […]. Each letter is written beside the place of articulation of the corresponding consonant.” (Heselwood, p. 51). St John’s copy, too, includes this fascinating illustration of the mouth (with throat, teeth and tongue).

The manuscript is testament to the importance of al-Sakkākī’s work, as it is thoroughly annotated by a variety of hands. Based on the accumulation of annotations, the first and third section were of particular interest to the readers of this particular copy. Historically, the third section was the most influential, contributing to the mistaken assumption that Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm was a work on rhetoric alone.

St John’s copy of  Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm was donated to the College by Archbishop William Laud. Of the 15 Oriental manuscripts he gave to his alma marta, this is one of eight that had previously belonged to the courtier and diplomat Sir Kenelm Digby.

Sounds vs. Spelling

Charles Butler, The Feminin’ Monarchi’, or, The Histori of Bee’s, 3rd edn(Oxford: William Turner, 1634), Psi.4.36

Our first venture into the phonetic debates of the early modern era comes from a rather unexpected source, a publication on bee-keeping. Charles Butler (1560-1647) published the first and second edition of this seminal work on apiculture, The Feminine Monarchie, or, A Treatise Concerning Bees, in 1609 and 1623 respectively. The third edition from 1634 looked decidedly different from its precursors.

Butler was not only a highly-gifted apiarist but also a philologist with a distinct opinion about English orthography and pronunciation. In his 1633 publication The English Grammar, or, The Institution of Letters, Syllables, and Words in the English Tongue Butler proposed disregarding the ever conflicting English spelling in favour of writing ‘altogether according to the sound now generally received.’ He set this idea into practice in the third edition of his bee-keeping bestseller, now published as The Feminin’ Monarchi’, or, The Histori of Bee’s. The edition includes a short note from the printer to reader, referring to Bulter’s recently published English Grammar in matters of orthography and also offers some explanations about the representation of aspirants (e.g. using w for ‘wh’: wen vs. when) and the silent ‘e’ represented by ‘ (e.g. feminin’ vs. feminine).

Butler’s phonetic representation is quite legible even without access to his English Grammar and can be read without special training. Quite in contrast to today’s infinitely more complex International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Anyone who has ever used the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), another academic dictionary, or in some instances even Wikipedia, will have seen IPA even if they are not aware of it. Let’s take the word nothing, for instance. Bulter presents it as

while the OED’s phonetic representation in IPA is /ˈnʌθɪŋ/. Inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation are still part and parcel of the English language today. Compare, for instance, lever /ˈliːvə/ and ever /ˈɛvə/. During the early modern period this issue was considerably graver as printing began to standardize late Middle English orthography at a time when spoken language underwent significant pronunciation changes. Butler’s publication clearly express his frustration with the sound vs. spelling battel of the English languages even at a time when matters had begun to settle down.

St John’s College’s copy of The Feminin’ Monarchi’ was part of a bequest by the book collector Nathaniel Crynes (1686-1745), who matriculated from St John’s in 1704. In his will, he directed that, after a family member and the Bodleian Library, St John’s College had a choice of the remaining books in his collection. The College incorporated 1,500 of Crynes’s books.

Pictorial Pronunciation Guidance

John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London: Samuel Gellibrand and John Martyn, 1668), Omega.4.44

During the Western Middle Ages and part of the early modern period Latin was the shared language of scholars across Europe, their lingua franca. Eventually, however, the individual European vernaculars superseded Latin. Many artificial languages were created to replace Latin as a universal language, although none of them ever did. One of the languages proposed was devised by John Wilkins (1614-1672), theologian, founding member of the Royal Society, and Warden of Wadham College (1648–1659), in his Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language from 1688.

Wilkins created a notation based on classifications, logically ordered concepts, which he called “real characters”. In other words, instead of using letters to represents sounds, he used signs to represent concepts. The central idea was to be independent of any spoken language. In Wilkins’s version of The Lord’s Prayer, the “real characters” have a vague similarity with Arabic writing while the phonetic representation looks like a mixture of Latin, possible the odd Greek as well as made-up letters.

The idea that anyone would like to speak this language was more of an afterthought. Phonetic representations were added late in the book. To provide additional support with the pronunciation, an illustration was provided that showed the articulation individual sounds.  Three years before Wilkins’s publication the first pictorial representation of English appeared in Owen Price’s The Vocal Organ from 1665 (Lerer, p. 161). Like Price’s illustrations, Wilkins’ depictions aimed to guide the reader how to produce these sounds themselves (Ibid.).

John Henry explains that the creating of the “philosophical language” was a complex and lengthy process, which Wilkins did not undertake on his own. One of his colleagues on the project was another member of the Royal Society, Seth Ward (1617-1689), mathematician, astronomer, and Bishop of Salisbury from1667. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed much of Wilkins’s papers and he enlisted more help to complete his work. While the “philosophical language” was initially welcomed by members of the Royal Society it was never really used. Wilkins’s request for members of the Royal Society to improve on its shortcomings were never answered.

St John’s College’s copy is still in a contemporary, 17th century binding. Chain holes in the upper board indicate that it was chained to a shelf in the Old Library. The volume is a donation by one John Loving.


Calder, Natalie, “Literacy and Print in Early Modern Germany and England”, Medieval Forum, Blog 19 August 2015, at,they%20know%20of%20current%20events%3F [accessed 19 March 2022]

Heselwood, Barry, Phonetic Transcription in Theory and Practice (Edinburgh, 2013)

Heinrichs, W. P., “al-Sakkākī”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn, ed. P. Bearman et al. at [accessed 16 March 2022]

Henry, John, “Wilkins, John (1614-1672)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at [accessed 22 March 2022]; source of all information about John Wilkins’s life

Lerer, Seth, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language (New York, 2007)

Lloyd, Amy J., Education, Literacy and the Reading Public, at,essay%20will%20explore%20how%20this%20increase%20was%20achieved. [accessed 22 March 2022]

National Literacy Trust at [accessed 17 March 2022]

World Population Review at [accessed 22 March 2022]

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