Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Ellis, Alexander John

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|ELLIS, ALEXANDER JOHN]] (1814–1890), philologist and mathematician, born at Hoxton in Middlesex on 14 June 1814, originally bore the surname Sharpe. He adopted the name of Ellis by royal license in 1825 in consequence of the bequest of a relative, who wished to enable him to devote his life to study and research. He entered Shrewsbury school in 1826, and Eton in 1832, and was elected a scholar of Trinity College in 1835, graduating B.A. in 1837 as sixth wrangler. He entered the Middle Temple as a student, but without an intention of following the law. In 1843 he first made himself known as a writer on mathematics by his translation of Martin Ohm's 'Geist der mathematischen Analysis.' He afterwards continued to write, from time to time, papers on mathematical subjects, many of them of an abstruse character, which generally appeared in the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society.' In 1874, by the publication of his ' Algebra identified with Geometry,' he put before the public the theory which had existed in his own mind for many years, that algebra was a purely geometrical calculus, not an arithmetical one.

Ellis, however, devoted his chief attention to phonetic reforms. A few years after leaving Cambridge he associated himself with (Sir) Isaac Pitman q. v. Suppl.] in arranging a system of printing called phonotypy, which by the aid of several new letters gave the means of representing accurately the various sounds used in spoken language. This system he finally developed into two forms: the more accurate palæotype and the popular glossic. In 1844 he explained his system in a treatise entitled 'Phonetics: a Familiar System of the Principles of that Science' (Bath, 8vo), which was followed by several other works, pointing out the disadvantages of the ordinary orthography, and advocating the adoption of the phonetic system. He transformed into the new orthography many standard works, including 'Paradise Lost' (1846), 'The Pentateuch' (1849), the 'New Testament' (1849), 'The Tempest' (1849), Macbeth ' (1849), 'Rasselas' (1849), the 'Pilgrim's Progress'(1850). He also published a weekly newspaper called the 'Fonetic Frend,' which appeared in August 1849, and ran for a few months, and the 'Spelling Reformer,' which appeared in 1849 and 1850. In 1849 he was completely prostrated from overwork and remained for three years incapable of mental exertion. Finding, on recovery, that his phonetic scheme was too daring to be successful, he made several modifications of it, and in 1870 he laid before the Society of Arts a paper 'On a Practical Method of Meeting the Spelling Difficulty in School and in Life,' in which he proposed the use of phonetic orthography concurrently with ordinary spelling.

While pursuing his phonetic studies at the British Museum in 1859, Ellis came across William Salisbury's 'Dictionary in Englysche and Welshe' (1547), which directed his attention to the history of English pronunciation. The subject so fascinated him that it was his chief occupation during the latter part of his life. In 1866 he produced 'Palaeotype, or the Representation of Spoken Sounds by Ancient Types,' which he laid before the Philological Society. The first part of his great work 'On Early English Pronunciation, with special Reference to Shakspere and Chaucer. Containing an Investigation of the Correspondence of Writing with Speech in England, from the Anglo-Saxon Period to the existing received and Dialectal Forms,' appeared in 1869, and was within five years followed by three others. The fifth part, however, on the existing phonology of English dialects, involved so much labour that it was only finished in 1889. The whole work, through the good offices of Dr. Frederick James Furnivall, was published jointly by the Philological, the Chaucer, and the Early English Text societies. In this work spoken sounds were represented by his palaeotype method. An abridgment of the fifth part was published by the English Dialect Society, entitled 'English Dialects, their Sounds and Homes.' In this comparatively popular work glossic was substituted for palseotype. A sixth part, which should contain a summary of the whole and an elaborate index, was contemplated, but death prevented the accomplishment of his design. In recognition of his great services to the history of the English tongue, he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Cambridge University in June 1890. Some of his views were combated in 1874 by Richard Francis Weymouth in his treatise 'On Early English Pronunciation, with special Reference to Chaucer' (London, 8vo).

Another subject in which Ellis took much interest was the scientific theory of music. He studied music at Edinburgh under John Donaldson [q. v.], and desiring during his phonetic studies to obtain an accurate physical explanation of the production of vowel sounds, on the suggestion of Professor Max Miiller [q. v. Suppl.], he referred to Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz's 'Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage fur die Theorie der Musik.' He conceived so high an opinion of the importance of the work that he translated the third edition into English in 1875 under the title of 'The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music' (London, 8vo). More than a third of this edition consisted of original work by Ellis himself, and a second edition in 1885 contained fresh additions. He also wrote three papers for the Society of Arts, in 1877, 1880, and 1885, on musical pitch and the musical scales of various nations, for each of which he received a silver medal from the society; that written in 1880 was reprinted in the same year under the title 'The History of Musical Pitch' (London, 8vo).

Ellis was elected a fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1837, of the Royal Society on 2 June 1864, of the London Mathematical Society on 19 June 1865, serving on the council from 1866 to 1868. He was also a member of the Philological Society in 1866, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries on 10 Feb. 1870, and of the College of Preceptors in 1873. He was president of the Philological Society from 1872 to 1874, and from 1880 to 1882. He also became a member of the Association for improving Geometric Teaching in 1872. He served on the council of the Royal Society from 1872 to 1874, and from 1880 to 1882, and in 1886 was elected a life governor of University College, London. He died on 28 Oct. 1890 at his residence, 21 Auriol Road, West Kensington, leaving two sons, of whom one is Mr. Tristram. Ellis, the etcher. His wife died in 1889.

Besides the works already mentioned and many pamphlets and tracts, he published: 1. 'Horse-Taming: an Account of the successful Application in England of the Method practised by the Red Indians,' Windsor, 1842, 8vo. 2. 'A Plea for Phonotypy and Phonography,' Bath, 1845, 8vo; 2nd ed. entitled ' A Plea for Phonetic Spelling,' London, 1848, 8vo; abridged ed. Bath, 1896, 8vo. 3. 'Original Nursery Rhymes for Boys and Girls,' London, 1848, 16mo; new ed. 1865. 4. 'Self-proving Examples in the first four Rules of Arithmetic, London, 185o, 12mo. 5. 'Universal Writing and Printing with ordinary Letters,' Edinburgh and London, 1856, 4to. 6. 'Algebra identified with Geometry,' London, 1874, 8vo. 7. 'Practical Hints on the Quantitative Pronunciation of Latin,' London, 1874, 8vo. 8. 'The English, Dionysian, and Hellenic Pronunciations of Greek,' London, 1876, 8vo. 9. 'Pronunciation for Singers,' London, 1877, 8vo. He also supplied an appendix 'On a complete Phonographic Alphabet' for all languages to Pitman's 'Manual of Phonography' (edition of 1845), and 'Classified Lists of Words to illustrate West Somersetshire Pronunciation' to Frederic Thomas Elworthy's 'Dialect of West Somerset' (1875). He contributed numerous papers on such subjects as music, barometric hypsometry, logic, the geometric meaning of imaginaries, stigmatics, and the computation of logarithms to the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society' between 1859 and 1884. All Ellis's works which were produced in palseotype, besides others, were printed by Messrs. Stephens, Austin, & Sons, of Hertford. His last literary labour was the article 'Phonetics' in 'Chambers's Encyclopædia.'

[Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1891, vol. xlix.; Academy, 1890, ii. 419-20; Men of the Time, 1887; Athenæum, 1890, ii. 627; Shrewsbury School Reg. 1898, p. 39; Salopian, December 1890; Stapylton's Eton School Lists, 1791-1850, p. 149; Phonetic Journal, 1890, pp. 574, 591; Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 1891, xxi. 457-61 (by Robert Tucker); Ellis's Algebra identified with Geometry, Appendix iii.]

E. I. C.