Alexander John Ellis
Alexander John Ellis FRS (14 June 1814 - 28 October 1890) was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 mathematician and philologist
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

. He changed his name from his father's name Sharpe to his mother's maiden name Ellis in 1825, based on a condition for receiving significant financial support from a relative on his mother's side.


He was born Alexander John Sharpe in Hoxton
Hoxton is an area in the London Borough of Hackney, immediately north of the financial district of the City of London. The area of Hoxton is bordered by Regent's Canal on the north side, Wharf Road and City Road on the west, Old Street on the south, and Kingsland Road on the east.Hoxton is also a...

, Middlesex
Middlesex is one of the historic counties of England and the second smallest by area. The low-lying county contained the wealthy and politically independent City of London on its southern boundary and was dominated by it from a very early time...

 to a wealthy family. His father, James Birch Sharpe, was a notable artist and physician, who was later appointed Esquire of Windlesham
Windlesham is a village in the Surrey Heath district of Surrey in South East England. It is also the name of the parish that covers Bagshot and Lightwater, in addition to Windlesham...

. His mother, Ann Ellis, was from a noble background herself, but was not known by anyone, even to this day, from where her family fortune arose. His brother James Birch Sharpe junior, died at the Battle of Inkerman
Battle of Inkerman
The Battle of Inkerman was fought during the Crimean War on November 5, 1854 between the allied armies of Britain and France against the Imperial Russian Army. The battle broke the will of the Russian Army to defeat the allies in the field, and was followed by the Siege of Sevastopol...

, during the Crimean War
Crimean War
The Crimean War was a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The war was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining...

, and his other brother William Henry Sharpe, served with the Lancashire Fusiliers
Lancashire Fusiliers
The Lancashire Fusiliers was a British infantry regiment that was amalgamated with other Fusilier regiments in 1968 to form the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.- Formation and early history:...

, after moving north with his family, to Cumberland
Cumberland is a historic county of North West England, on the border with Scotland, from the 12th century until 1974. It formed an administrative county from 1889 to 1974 and now forms part of Cumbria....

, due to military work.

Alexander was educated at Shrewsbury School
Shrewsbury School
Shrewsbury School is a co-educational independent school for pupils aged 13 to 18, founded by Royal Charter in 1552. The present campus to which the school moved in 1882 is located on the banks of the River Severn in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England...

, Eton College
Eton College
Eton College, often referred to simply as Eton, is a British independent school for boys aged 13 to 18. It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI as "The King's College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor"....

 and Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Trinity has more members than any other college in Cambridge or Oxford, with around 700 undergraduates, 430 graduates, and over 170 Fellows...

 (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
Pitch (music)
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...

 as well as speech and song
In music, a song is a composition for voice or voices, performed by singing.A song may be accompanied by musical instruments, or it may be unaccompanied, as in the case of a cappella songs...


Ellis is also 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,
Ellis elaborates his notion and notation of cents
Cent (music)
The cent is a logarithmic unit of measure used for musical intervals. Twelve-tone equal temperament divides the octave into 12 semitones of 100 cents each...

 for musical intervals which became especially influential in Comparative musicology, a predecessor of ethnomusicology
Ethnomusicology is defined as "the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in local and global contexts."Coined by the musician Jaap Kunst from the Greek words ἔθνος ethnos and μουσική mousike , it is often considered the anthropology or ethnography of music...

. 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 pronunciation, he applied the Dialect Test
Dialect Test
The Dialect Test was created by Joseph Wright in February 1879. It first appeared in the works of A.J. Ellis, to whom Wright dictated the test. It stands as one of the earliest methods of identifying vowel sounds and features of speech. The aim was to capture the main vowel sounds of an individual...

 across Britain, and distinguished forty-two different dialects in England and the Scottish Lowlands
Scottish Lowlands
The Scottish Lowlands is a name given to the Southern half of Scotland.The area is called a' Ghalldachd in Scottish Gaelic, and the Lawlands ....


There are claims that Ellis himself was pitch-deaf, i.e. could not distinguish different pitches with his own ears. Today, this claim is often not supported anymore.

He was acknowledged by Shaw as the prototype of Professor Henry Higgins
Henry Higgins
Henry Higgins may refer to:*The fictional character: see Pygmalion or My Fair Lady*The Australian politician and judge H. B. Higgins* Henry Higgins -See also:*Harry Higgins, English cricketer*Henry Huggins, fictional character...

 of Pygmalion
Pygmalion (play)
Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts is a play by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of...

 (the basis for the musical My Fair Lady
My Fair Lady
My Fair Lady is a musical based upon George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe...

). He was elected in June 1864 a Fellow of the Royal Society


  • 1845, The Alphabet of Nature
  • 1848, A Plea for Phonetic Spelling: or, The Necessity of Orthographic Reform
  • 1869, On early English pronunciation, Greenwood Press: New York (1968).
  • 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
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