Alexander John Ellis
Alexander Sharpe

(1814-06-14)14 June 1814
Died28 October 1890(1890-10-28) (aged 76)
Kensington, London, England
EducationShrewsbury School, Eton College
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Occupation(s)mathematician and philologist

Alexander John Ellis FRS (14 June 1814 – 28 October 1890) was an English mathematician, philologist and early phonetician who also influenced the field of musicology. He changed his name from his father's name, Sharpe, to his mother's maiden name, Ellis, in 1825 as a condition of receiving significant financial support from a relative on his mother's side.[1] He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.


He was born Alexander John Sharpe in Hoxton, Middlesex to a wealthy family. His father, James Birch Sharpe, was a notable artist and physician who was later appointed Esquire of Windlesham. His mother, Ann Ellis, was from a noble background, but it is not known how her family made its fortune. Alexander's brother James Birch Sharpe junior died at the Battle of Inkerman during the Crimean War. His other brother, William Henry Sharpe, served with the Lancashire Fusiliers after moving north with his family to Cumberland, due to military work.

Alexander was educated at Shrewsbury School, Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge (BA 1837). Initially trained in mathematics and the classics, he became a well-known phonetician of his time and wrote the article on phonetics for the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1887. Through his work in phonetics, he also became interested in vocal pitch and, by extension, in musical pitch, as well as speech and song.

Ellis is noted for translating and extensively annotating Hermann von Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone. The second edition of this translation, published in 1885, contains an appendix which summarises Ellis' own work on related matters.

In his writings on musical pitch and scales,[2] Ellis elaborates his notion and notation of cents for musical intervals. This concept became especially influential in comparative musicology, a predecessor of ethnomusicology. Analyzing the scales (tone systems) of various European musical traditions, Ellis also showed that the diversity of tone systems cannot be explained by a single physical law, as had been argued by earlier scholars.

In part V of his series On Early English Pronunciation, he distinguished forty-two different dialects in England and the Scottish Lowlands.[3] This was one of the first works to apply phonetics to English speech and has been cited continuously by linguists since publication.

He was acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw as the prototype of Professor Henry Higgins of Pygmalion (adapted as the musical My Fair Lady).[4] He was elected in June 1864 as a Fellow of the Royal Society.[5]

Ellis's son Tristram James Ellis trained as an engineer, but later became a noted painter of the Middle East.[6]

Phonetic alphabets

Monument, Kensal Green Cemetery
Monument detail, Kensal Green Cemetery

Ellis developed two phonetic alphabets, the English Phonotypic Alphabet (together with Isaac Pitman),[7] which used many new letters, and the Palaeotype alphabet, which replaced many of these with turned letters (such as ⟨ə⟩, ⟨ɔ⟩), small caps (such as ⟨ɪ⟩), and italics. Two of his novel letters survived: ⟨ʃ⟩ and ⟨ʒ⟩ were passed on to Henry Sweet's Romic alphabet and from there to the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Selected publications


  1. ^ John Hannavy (2008). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. CRC Press. ISBN 978-0-415-97235-2.
  2. ^ Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 28, p. 295
  3. ^ An Atlas of Alexander J. Ellis's The Existing Phonology of English Dialects,, has further details.
  4. ^ Ross Duffin, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony, W.W. Norton and Co., 2007
  5. ^ Mr. Tucker (January 1891). "Sketch of the life of the late A. J. Ellis". General Report (Association for the Improvement of Geometrical Teaching). 17: 49–54. JSTOR 24681252.
  6. ^ Black, Helen C. (1896). Pen, pencil, baton and mask: biographical sketches. Spottiswoode. pp. 345–351.
  7. ^ MacMahon, Michael K. C. (1996). "Phonetic Notation". In Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (eds.). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. p. 831. ISBN 978-0-19-507993-7.