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Alexander J. Ellis

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Title: Alexander J. Ellis  
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Subject: Hermann von Helmholtz, Ethnomusicology, Cent (music), 17 equal temperament
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Alexander J. Ellis

Alexander John Ellis, FRS (14 June 1814 – 28 October 1890) was an English mathematician and philologist. He changed his name from his father's name Sharpe to his mother's maiden name Ellis in 1825, as a condition to receive 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. 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 Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone. The second edition of this translation, published in 1885, contains an appendix which summarizes 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 extra-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 work On Early English Ppronunciation, he applied the Dialect Test across Britain. He distinguished forty-two different dialects in England and the Scottish Lowlands.[3]

There are claims that Ellis was tone deaf, i.e. could not distinguish different pitches with his own ears. Today, this claim is not often supported.[4]

He was acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw as the prototype of Professor Henry Higgins of Pygmalion (adapted as the musical My Fair Lady).[5] He was elected in June 1864 as a Fellow of the Royal Society.[6]

Phonetic alphabets

Ellis developed two phonetic alphabets, phonotype, which used many new letters, and palæotype, which replaced many of these with turned letters (such as ⟨ə⟩, ⟨ɔ⟩), small caps (such as ⟨ɪ⟩), and italics. However, two new letters survived, ⟨ʃ⟩ and ⟨ʒ⟩; these were passed on to Sweet's Romic alphabet and from there to the International Phonetic Alphabet.


Works (selected)

  • 1845, The Alphabet of Nature
  • 1848, A Plea for Phonetic Spelling: or, The Necessity of Orthographic Reform
  • 1869, On Early English Pronunciation, London: N. Trübner / reissued by Greenwood Press: New York (1968).
  • --do.-- (text online at «»)
  • 1885, "On the Musical Scales of Various Nations", Journal of the Society of Arts 33, p. 485. (Link is to a HTML transcription (Accessed September 2008)
  • 1890, English Dialects – Their Sounds and Homes


  • M. K. C. MacMahon, Ellis , Alexander John (1814–1890), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 14 June 2006

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