William Holder


William Holder was an English phonetician, music theorist, composer, mathematician, church rector, and teacher of the deaf. He served as Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1669, he presented a summary of his teaching methods to the Royal Society. He used the method to teach Alexander Popham a young boy who was deaf.

Popham, born deaf in Somerset, England, is claimed (together with Daniel Whalley, above) to be the first born-deaf British person to have been taught to speak, first by William Holder beginning in 1659. Unsatisfied with Holder's work, Popham's family then sent him to John Wallis. There was subsequent competing claim on the parts of Holder and Wallis for who was the first to teach speech to a person who was deaf

Holder’s techniques for teaching Popham were somewhat similar to those of his Spanish predecessors in that he advocated the use of writing as a beginning step and used a two-handed manual alphabet in the teaching of speech. He developed specific techniques to teach speech reading skills. Holder relied heavily on context to differentiate between not only sounds that may look alike on the lips—for example, /p/, /b/, and /m/--but also between meaning of the same word in varying contexts. He was well aware of difficulties of speech reading and stated, “The histories of those who could discern speech by their eye are most of such as having had knowledge of language and readiness in speaking, falling afterwards into deafness, have lost the use of speech, but still retain the memory of it.”

Holder’s main contribution to his ideas on the deaf is the following:

Holder, William (1669). Elements of speech: An essay of inquiry into the natural production of letters: with an appendix concerning persons deaf and dumb.

Holder book

This book includes an argument that the problem of the deaf is with hearing and not speech. He describes in it how to teach individual speech sounds, moving from there to syllables, words, and phrases (pp. 111-158). Also in the appendix is a case study of “an experiment concerning the deafness caused by want of due tension of the membrane in the ear call’d the Tympanum”.

Writings by William Holder

Holder, William (1669). The elements of speech, an essay of inquiry into the natural production of letters: with an appendix concerning persons deaf and dumb. London: John Martyn

Holder, William (1668). Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, 35, 665-668.

Holder, William (1670). Supplement to the philosophical transactions of July, 1670. With some reflexions on Dr. John Wallis, his letter there inserted. London: Henry Brome.

Holder, William (1694). A treatise on the natural grounds and principles of harmony. London: J. Heptinstall.

Current writings about William Holder

Arikha, Noga (2005) Deafness, ideas and the language of thought in the late 1600s. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 13, 233-262)

Rieber, R.W. and Wollock, Jeffrey L. (1975) Introduction to William Holder, Elements of Speech: An Essay of Inquiry into the Natural Production of Letters. New York: AMS Press. Also cited as R. W. Rieber & J. L. Wollock (1975) William Holder on Phonetics and Deafness: An Introduction to the New Edition of Elements of Speech.

Porter, R. (1989). The early Royal Society and the spread of medical knowledge. In Roger French and Andrew Wear (Eds). The medical revolution of the seventeenth century. (pp. 114-144) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stanley, Jerome (2002) William Holder and his position in seventeenth-century philosophy and music theory. Studies in the history and interpretation of music. Edwin Mellen Press.