Top 173 Things in History: #168. Ben Franklin’s Alphabet Reform

N.B. This is the first History post that doesn’t rely extensively on Wikipedia. Instead, I’ve done my research for this in 1958’s first book of Daniel Boorstin’s scintillating trilogy The Americans, subtitled The Colonial Experience. The entire text can be found here.

We Americans have pretty much agreed that Benjamin Franklin was a fairly smart guy and probably the closest thing our country has to Leonardo da Vinci. He “discovered” electricity with a kite and all that, inventing the lightning rod and thereby saving dozens of houses from burning to the ground. He drew that “Join or Die” snake to help unite the colonies in the decades before the American Revolution. He came up with bifocals and streamlined the post office and gave some important speeches. In fact, Ben Franklin is so smart that we’ve more or less forgiven him for the positive/negative fiasco regarding electrical charge.

But, as smart as we think Ben Franklin was, it’s not even close to how smart Ben Franklin himself thought he was.

Ben Franklin thought he was so smart that he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” From the eighth chapter of his nauseating autobiography:

I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.

Franklin laid out the 13 virtues he felt he needed to perfect, starting with Temperance and ending at Humility.* Of course, Franklin was tripped up fairly early in his quest, somewhat surprisingly by the third virtue, Order.**

*Description: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

**I don’t think he graded himself fairly on Temperance. Dude (allegedly) makes Travis Henry look monogamous.

All this is to say that Franklin had some bad ideas mixed in with his good ones. His worst idea, though, may have been a little book he published in 1768 called Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling. In it, Franklin advocated* a (to modern Americans such as myself) radical reformation of the English alphabet, eliminating the “redundant” letters c, w, y, and j and introducing new ones to stand in for individual sounds (such as , which is the equivalent of the o sound in John). Franklin’s rationale was that each letter should stand for one sound and one sound alone. He disliked how a c could be a hard sound (“crack”) or a soft one (“city”), and so he eliminated it. “Crack” could become “krak,” and “city” could be “sity.” To avoid confusion regarding vowel sounds, repetition of a vowel would signal a long sound (e.g. “dear” would be “diir”).

*By the way, Franklin was horrified by verbs derived from nouns, such as “notice” and yes, “advocate.”**

**These two examples are straight from Boorstin.

The orthographic concepts behind Franklin’s reformed alphabet aren’t as flawed as the political ones. Franklin thought a new alphabet—unique from the English one—could represent the ideological distance between the homeland and the colonies. The problem is that, in 1768, what the colonies needed most was a united front concentrated on political issues, not grammatical ones. Franklin’s alphabet was a symbol that, if practiced, would probably undercut what it was meant to symbolize.

Fortunately, Noah Webster and Co., though intrigued, didn’t take Franklin’s suggested reforms too seriously, and Franklin himself acknowledged its flaws, saying he could “si meni inkanviiniensis, az uel az difikyltis.”

Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on November 7, 2009 at 2:04 AM

    pobody’s nerfect…

    The most important thing about this post is Boorstin- he was a spectacular historian- highly recommend his “knowledge trilogy”

    somewhat ironically, I was introduced to his works early in high school by none other than glenn beck


  2. Fortunately BF’s alphabet reforms were not adopted. 😉 Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award


  3. I think this is a good idea…


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