On this date in 1768, Benjamin Franklin — founding father, diplomat, printer, scientist, writer, and civic reformer — wrote a letter making his case for spelling reform.
Many know about his inventions, such as the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, but not many know about his attempt to eliminate six letters of the English alphabet and replace them with six of his own invention.
Franklin’s chief concern, like many who came both before and after him, was the confusing discrepancy in English between its sounds and its alphabet: “The difficulty of learning to spell well . . . is so great, that few attain it, thousands and thousands writing on to old age without ever being able to acquire it” (1).
To correct the imperfections in the English alphabet, Franklin proposed throwing out the six letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y and replacing them with six new letters of his own, letters which would represent the six sounds found in the following words:
- law, caught
- run, enough
- this, breathe
- singer, ring
- she, sure, emotion, leash
- thing, breath (2)
In his letter Franklin addresses objections to his spelling reform scheme. One was that books published before the reforms were implemented would become useless. To rebut this Franklin asked his reader to consider a similar case in Italy: “Formerly, its inhabitants all spoke and wrote in Latin; as the language changed, the spelling followed it.” Another objection addressed by Franklin was that of etymology – or word history –, particularly the historic roots of words that are preserved in their orthography (the way they are spelled). To this objection, Franklin responded with the following apt example:
If I should call a man a knave and a villain, he would hardly be satisfied with my telling him that one of the words originally signified only a lad or servant; and the other an under-ploughman, or the inhabitant of a village. It is from present usage only, that the meaning of words is to be determined.
Although Franklin’s arguments are convincing, his reform plan never came to fruition. Perhaps he was sidetracked by his other possibly more important role as midwife to the birth of the world’s first great democracy. Not until Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, did spelling in the United States see much reform.
Today’s Challenge: The Case for X Reform
Great people like Benjamin Franklin demonstrate the power of ideas, ideas for making their town, state, country, or world a better place. What do you see in your world that should be reformed, and how specifically would you propose to make it better? Argue your case by addressing the current problem, followed by a specific vision of how your reforms would improve the situation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: Attempting to spell in English is like playing one of those computer games where, no matter what, you will lose eventually. If some evil mage has performed vile magic on our tongue, he should be bunged into gaol for his nefarious goal (and if you still need convincing of how inconsistent English pronunciation is, just read that last sentence out loud). -James Harbeck