G.B. Shaw (the playwright) campaigned for a "universal alphabet," on and off, throughout his career. He (and some others) did have a point when they said that the English alphabet is anything but English (ancient Greek and Latin-based), is quite foreign to the language, and cannot be reformed sufficiently to reflect all the nuances of pronunciation and usage; and that it was high time someone came up with a PHONETIC version that everyone would agree on, accept, and enjoy. It is said that Shaw went so far as to invent his own version of such an alphabet which he used to write plays. Maybe he did. Who knows. My point here is that he also made it a point to spell certain words phonetically in the print versions of his plays (Shakespear rather than Shakespeare, etc).

It's mostly great fun, but the one word he used that I still find a bit puzzling is "shew" (instead of "show"). At first I thought that it was some kind of turn-of-the-century-Belle-Epoque-British thing. However, the dictionary flatly states that it is a variant of "show," and is archaic.


What gives? Why would Shaw, who believed himself to be one of the most advanced, progressive, and modern people of his epoch, use an archaism (in a play about language, of all things, i.e. "Pygmalion")? What am I missing?

  • Maybe he was telegraphing the pronunciation to Ed Sullivan. – Hot Licks Oct 18 '15 at 2:16

Shaw was born in 1856. At that time 'shew' was well on its way to being replaced by 'show'.

Google ngram: shew,show

However, it's likely that 'shew' was the spelling Shaw learned in school in Dublin, Ireland -- especially if he had an old-fashioned school-master.

I also suspect that, phonetically, 'shew' was much closer to the way that Shaw pronounced the word. So it would be natural for him to spell it that way.

Here is a recording of Shaw speaking. I haven't listened to it all the way through but I wouldn't be surprised if he says, "shew" in there somewhere.

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  • Chasly from UK: thank you. I'm going to listen to the recording now. Uh ... do you ever, like, sleep? ... Great help, thanks! – Ricky Oct 18 '15 at 2:01
  • Chasly: not once! This is very frustrating. Not once does the old coot say "show." And the speech is just awful. He writes much better than he speaks, which is surprising, given that he was a dramatist who spent a lot of his time around actors and public speakers. – Ricky Oct 18 '15 at 2:10
  • I just found a recording where he's advising foreigners on how to speak English. There's an interesting statement about pronunciation at about 6:30 onwards ---> youtube.com/watch?v=spTC1Dn7Uy8 – chasly from UK Oct 18 '15 at 2:11
  • I like the answer, but I wonder how you would define an old-fashioned school master in 1856. What were the new-fashioned school masters teaching? – Zan700 Oct 18 '15 at 2:15
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    Maybe Shaw pronounced shew like shoe, but I'd like some evidence. The OED gives both spellings but only the standard pronunciation in Volume 8 published in 1914, the same year of the first production of Pygmalion. Given that Shaw was on the pronunciation advisory board for the BBC, I doubt his pronunciation differed all that much from British received pronunciation. Shaw was most certainly a political "rebel" -- he was Fabian socialist and a Stalinist. Shaw was not an Anglican; he was an atheist. His family was Anglo-Irish, but that's different. Neither was he an Oxonian. – deadrat Oct 18 '15 at 3:01

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