July 25, 2013

Benjamin Franklin’s phonetic alphabet and the development of American English


Benjamin Franklin, it turns out, wasn’t content with playing a key role in the early American printing industry, establishing the first circulating library, and writing a bestselling almanac for twenty-five years running: the man also wanted to change the way Americans actually spelled stuff.

In the mid-1760s, when Franklin was living in London, he began to think about the alphabet, and the conclusion he came to was that the 26-letter alphabet as it stood was irrational and unconnected to spoken English. And so, as Jimmy Stamp writes in a recent post on the Smithsonian’s Design Decoded blog, Franklin proposed axing six letters— C, J, Q, W, X, and Y— and assigning only one sound to each letter. Plus—because it’s always fun to make up new letters— he invented six letters that looked like this:

Franklin’s system, as he laid out in “A Reformed Mode of Spelling,” was intended to “give the Alphabet a more natural Order” through organizing letters by the way the corresponding sounds were formed in the mouth. Thus, there were “simple Sounds formed by the Breath, with none or very little help of Tongue, Teeth, and Lips,” like “o” and “huh” (“huh” was to be indicated by the new letter that resembles a “y”), and other sounds like “f” and “v”, formed “still more forward by the under Lip applied to the upper Teeth.”

According to the paper “Six New Letters for a Reformed Alphabet” by Nicola Twilley, Franklin first put his alphabet to use in flirty correspondence with his landlady’s daughter Polly Stevenson. Stevenson wasn’t fazed:

Previous exposure to Franklin’s eclectic and experimental intelligence must explain the fact that on receiving a letter entirely written in a new alphabet, Polly simply transcribed it, and then replied in the new alphabet, listing the obstacles in the way of its widespread adoption.

Here is her letter, with its pointed ending:

For Franklin had encountered two essential problems in the dissemination of a new alphabet: one, in the age of actual type, if you invented a letter, you also had to get someone to fashion a piece of type so that you could print that letter. And two, people somehow had to be convinced to use the new system; one couldn’t, after all, flirt with the entire American populace. These stumbling blocks meant that, in the first place, the full Franklin alphabet didn’t appear in print until 1779, in his book Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces, eleven years after he had first conceived of it. And, in the second place, that nobody was really convinced.

Or rather, one important person was not convinced per se, but inspired. In the 1780s, Noah Webster was in the midst of his own campaigns to reform the American language; Franklin saw him speak in Philadelphia, shared his ideas with Webster, and even gave him his special type. Webster seems to have gracefully bowed out of using the type, but he did take heart from Franklin’s experiments, as Twilley, and Jill Lepore before her, in the book A is for American, quotes: “Your Excellency’s sentiments on the subject,” Webster wrote, “have taught me to believe the reformation of our alphabet still practicable.”

Webster would indeed go on to change the way Americans spelled, through his book American Speller, his American Dictionary of the English Language, and sometimes literally by knocking on doors: in a post on Daily Kos on the development of “American” as distinct from British English, blogger Ojibwa writes that Webstertraveled around to print shops handing to the printers a list of words with American spellings and asking them to follow these spellings.”

It’s an image of endearing pathos, except that it actually worked. So it’s no wonder that spelling reformists, punctuation stalwarts, language resurrectors, and even straight-up language inventors continue to battle away. After all,



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.