Ben Franklin was an inventor, a political leader, a scientist and a writer. He dabbled in electricity, mathematics and cartography. If you wear bifocals you can thank Ben Franklin who invented the spectacles in 1784 for his own personal use. He also made small edits to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. With the approaching Independence Day holiday in America (July 4th) it’s interesting to consider this man who has been called “The First American” by scholars.
Even though Ben Franklin made innumerable contributions in the early days of American History, few realize that Ben Franklin was also a linguist of sorts. Specifically, the ire of Ben Franklin was the English Alphabet. He found it archaic and outdated trying throughout his lifetime to propose a phonetically based one instead.
He wrote several books proposing changes to the English alphabet that he considered quite cumbersome. Even though his ideas never came to fruition, it’s interesting to think of what the English language would be like if Ben Franklin had his way.
If Ben Franklin wrote the English alphabet it wouldn’t have the 26 standard letters. Instead, it would be comprised of 26 sounds. The letters c, j, q, w, x and y would be completely omitted and replaced with six new letters that represented commonly used sounds.
For Franklin, every letter should have only one sound, including vowels. If a vowel were to be pronounced long, then it would be written twice. This also explains the elimination of the letter C as the “hard” sound of C was easily found in K and the “soft” sound could be replaced by the letter S. In 1768 Franklin used this alphabet to write a letter to a good friend. Here are a few of the more common words found in the letter:
frind = friend ui = you alredi = already iuz = use
Franklin’s motivation was purely functional. To him, the English language was so difficult because the letters inaccurately portrayed sounds. He did not want any “superfluous letters used in spelling”. In his mind if people could phonetically learn to write then spelling would improve.
Aside from wanting to rewrite the English alphabet, Ben Franklin also taught himself to read French, Spanish, Latin and Italian. That’s pretty impressive considering he lived in a technology-free age void of iphone apps, online tutorials and Skype lessons with a live tutor!
It’s interesting to imagine how different things might be if Ben Franklin’s alphabet had gained more traction. Considering that Noah Webster, the founder of Webster’s dictionary was intrigued by the idea, in another time and another place it might have succeeded. Perhaps it was the daunting task of teaching such a young country a new language that kept Franklin’s idea from succeeding. Or maybe it was the fact that language unifies and for a Republic just starting out introducing a new alphabet might have hindered the harmony the Forefather’s were trying to achieve.
Whatever the reason we can admire Franklin’s pioneering spirit and harness some of it for our language studies today!