Robert Bridges


Robert Bridges (1844-1930) became the Poet Laureate (largely an honorary position under the Crown) in 1913. I think that his poetry is mostly forgotten nowadays, and arguably his greatest claim to poetic fame is his championing of Gerard Manley Hopkins. However, he also had linguistic interests, particularly to do with English spelling and pronunciation.

In 1910 he wrote an essay for the English Association entitled “On the Present State of English Pronunciation” which was intended to promote a new spelling for English that would encourage a ‘better’ standard of pronunciation. He specifically notes Daniel Jones’ Phonetic transcriptions of English Prose (1909) as showing [ə] – which he writes as ‘er’ – for all manner of ‘different’ vowels. “The only question can be whether Mr Jones exaggerates the actual prevalence of degradation. Some will acquit him of any exaggeration. Others I know very well will regard him as a half-witted faddist, beneath serious notice, who should be left to perish in his vain imaginings” (page 46).

Bridges’ solution is to decide how words should be pronounced, and then reform the orthography accordingly. The theory is that by teaching this reformed orthography in schools, children will learn to pronounce English ‘properly’. A good model is northern English, where many of the vowels have remained ‘uncorrupted’. This last statement has led some people to believe that Bridges spoke with a Lancashire accent. I cannot believe this: he was born in Kent and educated at Eton. However, his father died when Bridges was still a child, and his mother’s second husband was a clergyman with a parish in Lancashire. Perhaps a happy childhood home in Lancashire may have led him to his liking for that accent

Unlike Shaw, who wanted a totally new alphabet for English, Bridges wanted to use adapted Roman alphabet letter shapes, for example those he found in fonts used for Old English by the Oxford University Press, to distinguish one sound from another. In the 1920s, he started to re-issue all his essays with a gradually more complex spelling system to exemplify his ideas. For instance, in the first reprinted essay, The Influence of the Audience on Shakespeare’s Drama, he uses a script ‘g’ for the voiced velar plosive, but the usual printed ‘g‘ for the voiced palato-alveolar affricate, and a shape similar to ‘ŋ’ for the velar nasal. However, he leaves ‘j’ and ‘dg‘ unchanged for the affricate, so that judgment remains ‘judgment’. The plan was to refine the spelling gradually in the course of the reprints, but Bridges died in 1930 before he could complete his plan, and his widow and David Abercrombie did the best they could from the notes he left. In his last long poem, The Testament of Beauty, he adopted a simpler re-spelling, deleting final -e from words such as motive, to show that the ‘i’ was pronounced /ɪ/. Note that this was not an attempt to simplify English spelling in order to make it easier for people to learn, but because he believed that a regularized spelling would ‘improve’ their pronunciation.

In 1913, Bridges was the instigator, and one of the founders, of the Society for Pure English, whose aims were to guide the language in directions which its members (“a few men of letters, supported by the scientific alliance of the best linguistic authorities”  – Tract No. 1, 1919, page 6) felt to be “advantageous”, including some “slight modifications” (ibid). The Society’s work was almost immediately suspended because of the outbreak of the First World War, but started to issue its Tracts in October 1919. The last one, no LXVI, entitled A retrospect, was published in 1946.

Bridges early recognised the importance of broadcasting, and in 1926, he became the Chairman of the BBC’s new Advisory Committee on Spoken English, and at the first meeting demonstrated his ideas for how unstressed vowels could retain a flavour (as he put it) of the original. The minutes are silent on what Daniel Jones and Arthur Lloyd James, both present, had to say about this. The Committee published the first results of its deliberations in a booklet entitled Broadcast English I: Recommendations to Announcers Concerning some Words of Doubtful Pronunciation in 1928. As I mentioned in a recent post, a year later, Bridges got permission to republish this as Tract no XXXII of the Society for Pure English, with annotations from some correspondents – an unusual proceeding: for the chairman of a committee to publish a critique of a report of that same committee!

When Bridges died, John Reith wrote in his diary “21 April 1930: Robert Bridges died today and I am very sorry indeed.”


  1. Bridges was certainly gifted. A few of his shorter lyric poems have charm. But his effusions on linguistic matters are full of irrationalities and self-indulgent crankiness. Just to give one example of the sort of egregious remarks he permitted himself, at page 382 of the SPE Tract Graham referred to, he comments perversely:
    “Jones records in his dictionary (1917) that cultivated Southern English people, in their ordinary conversation, pronounce ‘parsonage’ as ‘pahsnidg’ (pa:sn̩idʒ). Anything that can check the spread of this is useful, and it is to be hoped that the B.B.C. announcers will set the example of a more agreeable solution than the phoneticians have predetermined.”

  2. What Bridges doesn’t tell us is how he would like to hear the word “parsonage” pronounced. What can he have meant?

  3. @Graham

    He probably wanted a schwa in the second syllable.

  4. dw – But his objection to ‘garredge’ was the vowel in the second syllable. I should have tried harder to get the transcription right – Jones (and Bridges) made the /n/ of ‘parsonage’ syllabic. This hasn’t come out in Jack’s comment either.

  5. Poor old Daniel Jones and Arthur Lloyd James. Imagine having to sit through a lecture on phonetics from Robert Bridges.

  6. @Graham:

    I mean that the second syllable should be a schwa as opposed to syllabic [n].

  7. Pingback: The Poetic Devices of Robert Bridges | Literatured

  8. Interesting description. I prefer to see clearly Marcy

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