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The Heritage Law Center, LLC Blog

Estate Plans of the Rich and Famous: George Bernard Shaw

POSTED ON: November 4, 2013

I’m sure many writers profess their love for the written word; however, few have backed up their passion to the extent of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw, the famed Irish playwright (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) and co-founder of the London School of Economics, actually left a large part of his fortune in a trust to be used to create a new alphabet.

Following Shaw’s death in 1950, and after some legal dispute, his Trustee announced a worldwide competition to design such an alphabet, with the aim of producing a system which would be an economical way of writing and of printing the English language. The contest was won by a Mr. Ronald Kingsley Read, who was then appointed the sole designer of the new alphabet.

The result was the Shavian alphabet (also known as Shaw alphabet), an alphabet conceived as a way to provide simple, phonetic orthography for the English language to replace the difficulties of the conventional spelling. In his trust, Shaw set three main criteria for the new alphabet: it should be (1) at least 40 letters; (2) as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and (3) distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that the new spellings were simply “misspellings”.

Shaw, the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), for his work on the film Pygmalion, also wanted some of his work to be published in the new language. A version of Shaw’s play, Androcles and the Lion, was published in 1962 in bi-alphabetic edition with both conventional and Shavian spellings. Although not exactly catching the spelling world on fire, the Shaw language is still occasionally used, with a Shavian edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland published in 2013.

Although, after his death, the project was neglected for a time due to lack of sufficient trust funds, this changed when his estate began earning significant royalties from the rights to Pygmalion after My Fair Lady—the musical adapted from Pygmalion by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe—became a hit.

Interesting what a little planning and a creative mind can accomplish.