Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY


 Benjamin Franklin


“…as every Letter ought to be, confin’d to one; the same is to be observ’d in all the Letters, Vowels and Consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever Company, their Sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous Letters used in Spelling, i.e. no Letter that is not sounded, and this Alphabet by Six new Letters provides that there be no distinct Sounds in the Language without Letters to express them”.   – Benjamin Franklin


There was then no science of phonetics for him to know. He was a printer and writer who had observed the disorderly confusion of English spelling. But instead of proposing surface changes he went straight to the first principles of the matter. The letters used in English did not match the sounds. Six of the letters, he thought, were unnecessary: C. j q, w, x y. In their places six others were needed: for the sounds of as in ball or o as in folly, of th as in think, of th as in thy, of sh as in ship, of ng as in repeating, of u as in unto. The new letter for sh in combination with other letters could stand for (d)j or (d)g as in James or gentle, for (t)ch as in cherry, or for (z)j as in jamais. Each letter would always represent the same sound. There would be no superfluous letters used. Franklin, having designed the new letters he proposed, reformed his alphabet in a phonetic order which he had worked out himself, obviously, by noting the part played by throat, breath, tongue, teeth, and lips in the pronunciation of various sounds. He did not distinguish all the sounds in English or provide for them, and he left A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spellings unfinished. But his analysis was as fundamental, if not as detailed, as any that has been made since.

His alphabet was not published till 1779, in his Political, Miscel­laneous, and Philosophical Pieces. He seems to have taken no inter­est in it after September 1768, when he showed or sent it to Polly Stevenson, received a letter in which she used it, and on the 2answered her objections, writing with some slips in the new mode (here transcribed to the old for want of the new letters which he had designed).

“The objection you make to rectifying our alphabet, that it will be attended with inconveniences and difficulties,’ is a natural one; for it always occurs when any reformation is proposed, whether in religion, government, laws, and even down as low as roads and wheel carriages. The true question then is not whether there will be no difficulties or inconveniences but whether the conveniences will not, on the whole, be greater than the inconveniences. In this case, the difficulties are only in the beginning of the practice; when they are once overcome the advantages are lasting.”

“To either you or me, who spell well in the present mode, I imagine the difficulty of changing that mode for the new is not so great but that we might perfectly get over it in a week’s writing. As to those who do not spell well, if the two difficulties are compared, viz., that of teaching them true spelling in the present mode and that of teaching them the new alphabet and the new spelling according to it, I am confident that the latter would be by far the least. They naturally fall into the new method already, as much as the imperfection of their alphabet will admit of; their present bad spelling is only bad because contrary to the present bad rules; under the new rules it would be good. The difficulty of learning to spell well in the old way is so great that few attain it, thousands and thousands writing on to old age without ever being able to acquire it. ‘Tis, besides, a difficulty continually increasing, as the sound gradually varies more and more from the spelling; and to foreigners it makes the learning to pronounce our language, as written in our books, almost impossible.”

Franklin could not agree with Polly that the new spelling by obscuring the etymologies of words would obscure their meaning.

“Etymologies are at present very uncertain; but such as they are, the old books would still preserve them and etymologists would there find them. Words in the course of time change their meanings as well as their spelling and pronunciation; and we do not look to etymology for their present meanings. 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 the meaning of words is to be determined.”

Nor did Franklin concede to Polly that the new alphabet would destroy:

 “the distinction between words of different meaning and similar sound.” “That distinction is already destroyed in pronouncing them; and we rely on the sense alone of the sentence to ascertain which of the several words similar in sound we intend. If this is sufficient in the rapidity of discourse it will be much more so in written sentences, which may be read leisurely and attended to more particularly in case of difficulty than we can attend to a past sentence while a speaker is hurrying us along with new ones.”

“Your third objection is that ‘all the books already written would be useless.’ This inconvenience would only come on gradually, in a course of ages. You and 1, and other now living readers, would hardly forget the use of them. People would long learn to read the old writing though they practiced the new. And the inconvenience is not greater than what has actually happened in a similar case, in Italy. Formerly its inhabitants all spoke and wrote Latin; as the language changed the spelling followed it. It is true that at present a mere unlearned Italian cannot read the Latin books, though they are still read and understood by many. But if the spelling had never been changed he would now have found it much more difficult to read and write his own language; for written words would have had no relation to sounds, they would only have stood for things; so that if he would express in writing the idea he has when he sounds the word vescovo he must use the letters episco‑ In short, whatever the difficulties and inconveniences now are, they will be more easily surmounted now than hereafter; and some time or other it must be done, or our writing will become the same with the Chinese as to the difficulty of learning and using it. And it would already have been such if we had continued the Saxon spelling and writing used by our forefathers.”

The bookish arguments of people who like to see traditional spelling because they have always seen it, Franklin did not bother to discuss. He philosophically viewed the language as a whole. Language was first speech, then writing. He knew enough about etymology and the history of language‑perhaps from talks with James Parsons of the Honest Whigs‑to understand that speech had moved faster than writing, and that in 1768 writing had become a drag on language, stiffening it to the printed usage of dictionaries. Children who knew their English by ear had to master by eye what was almost an ancient dialect so far as its spelling showed. Here, Franklin thought, were a great waste and a great unreason. Let speech prevail, since it was the true source and guide of language, and let writing adapt itself to speech. The conservative objections to the new alphabet were less weighty than the advantages of the new one. Sooner or later spelling would have to be simplified. It might as well be undertaken now. In matters of reason Franklin was likely to be a thoroughgoing revolutionary, and he was never more so than in his scheme for the reform of spelling which concerned everybody.

From pages 425 to 428 of the Pulitzer Prize winning  book Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren.

From: Franklin, Benjamin author, printer, scientist (electricity, physics, oceanography, meteorology), diplomat.

Benjamin Franklin, in addition to his other pursuits, was interested in promoting spelling reform. In 1768, while living in London, he wrote A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, a reasonably accurate phonetic system for spelling English which, published in 1779, greatly influence Noah Webster. His new phonetic alphabet consisted of 26 symbols: the conventional letters cjqwx, and y were eliminated as redundant and six new characters, were devised for sounds for which he thought there was no unambiguous orthographic representation. The remaining letters of the traditional Roman alphabet were retained but their sound value was strictly defined according to the principle ‘one symbol (or unique digraph), one sound’. Thus g could only represent the voiced velar stop, as in give, never the voiced palatal affricate, as in gentle. This affricate and its voiceless counterpart (as in chew) he represented by clusters of stop plus palato-alveolar fricative (the fricative portion being the voiceless one in both cases). Other notable features of his system are: 1) the use of double vs. single vowel letters to stand for long vs. short vowels, e.g., mend for ‘mend’ but remeend for ‘remained’, 2) the transcription of the diphthong in words such as ‘I’ and ‘buy’ with two letters, the first equal to the initial vowel in ‘unto’ and the second equal to the vowel in ‘did’, or as we would transcribe it today using the International Phonetic Alphabet. This latter feature undoubtedly reflects a regional pronunciation which may still be found in some British English and New England dialects.

From The Writing of Benjamin Franklin: London 1757 -1775


o It is endeavoured to give the Alphabet a more natural Order, beginning first with the simple Sounds form’d huh by the Breath, with none or very little Help of Tongue, Teeth and Lips, and produc’d chiefly in the Windpipe.

ish * Then coming forward to those form’d by the gi ing * Root of the Tongue next to the Windpipe; ki

r n Then to those form’d more forward by the forepart of t d the Tongue against the Roof of the Mouth;

es ez Then those form’d still more forward in the Mouth, el by the Tip of the Tongue, apply’d first to the Roots of the upper Teeth,

eth, * Then to the Ends or Edges of the same edh * Teeth;

ef Then to those form’d still more forward by the ev under Lip apply’d to the upper Teeth;

bi Then to those form’d yet more forward by the upper pi and under Lip opening to let out the sounding Breath;

m And lastly ending with the Shutting up of the Mouth or closing the Lips, while any Vowel is sounding.

In this Alphabet c is omitted as unnecessary, k supplying its hard Sound and s the soft.

The Jod j is also omitted, its Sound being supplied by the new Letter ish *, which serves other purposes, assisting in the formation of other Sounds; thus the * with a d before it gives the Sound of the Jod j and soft g, as in James, January, Giant, gentle, d*eemsd*anuerid*yiantd*entel; with a t before it, it gives the Sound of ch soft, as in cherry, chip, t*erit*ip; and with an z before it the French sound of the Jod j, as in jamais, z*ame.

Thus the g has no longer two different Sounds, which occasion’d Confusion, but is as every Letter ought to be, confin’d to one; the same is to be observ’d in all the Letters, Vowels and Consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever Company, their Sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous Letters used in Spelling, i.e. no Letter that is not sounded, and this Alphabet by Six new Letters provides that there be no distinct Sounds in the Language without Letters to express them. As to the Difference between short and long Vowels, it is naturally express’d by a single Vowel where short, a double one where long; as, for mend write mend, but for remain’d write rime en’d; for did, write did, but for deed, write diid, &c.;

this What in our common Alphabet is suppos’d the to third Vowel, i, as we sound it is not a Vowel but a be Diphthong, consisting of two of our Vowels join’d, altered viz. a as sounded in all or u as sounded in unto and e: any one will be sensible of this, who sounds those two Vowels ae or ue quick after each other; the Sound begins aw or y and ends ee. The true Sound of the i is that we now give to e in the words deedkeep, &c. [ ]



Phonetic Alphabet

Names of the Letters express’d in the reform’d Characters. Sounded as now in Sounds and Characters.

o old o the first Vowel naturally, and deepest sound; requires only to open the Mouth, and breathe thro’ it.
* [*] John, Folly * the next, requiring the Mouth open’d a little more or hollower.
a man, can a the next, a little more.
e mane, lane e the next, requires the Tongue to be a little more elevated tho the Pipe alone will form them, but not so easily.
i een, seen i the next, still a little more.
u tool, fool u the next, requires the Lips to be gather’d up, leaving a small Opening.
* [*;*] um, un, as in * the next, a very short Vowel, umbrage, unto, &c. the Sound of which we should express in our present Letters thus, uh, a short and not very strong Aspiration.
h hunter, happy, high huh a stronger or more forcible Asperation
g give, gather gi the first Consonant, being form’d by the Root of the Tongue, this is the present hard g.
k keep, kick ki a kindred Sound, a little more acute, to be us’d instead of the hard c.
* [*] sh, ship, wish ish a new Letter, wanted in our Language, our sh, separately taken, not being proper Elements of the Sound.
* [*] ng, ing, reaping ing a new Letter, wanted for the among same Reason; these are form’d back in the Mouth.
n ned en form’d more forward in the Mouth, the Tip of the Tongue to the Roof of the Mouth.
r art ar the same, the Tip of the Tongue a little loose or separate from the Roof of the Mouth.
t teeth ti the Tip of the Tongue more forward, touching and then leaving the Roof.
d deed di the same, touching a little fuller.
l ell, tell el the same touching just about the Gums of the upper Teeth.
* [*] th, think e* the Tongue under and a little behind the upper Teeth, touching them nearly but so as to let the Breath pass between.
* [*,*] dh, thy e* the same a little fuller.
s essence es this Sound is form’d by the Breath passing between the moist End of the Tongue and the upper Teeth.
z ez, wages ez the same a little denser and duller.
f effect ef form’d by the lower Lip against the upper Teeth.
v ever ev the same fuller and duller.
b bees bi the lips put full together and open’d as the Air passes out.
p peep pi the same but a thinner Sound.
m ember em the closing of the Lips, while the e is sounding.

From A Short History of the Government Printing Office
(the Government Printing Office is involved in the Theodore Roosevelt spelling reform story)

The name of Benjamin Franklin is linked to the United States Government Printing Office. Some GPO employees mistakenly tell newcomers that he was the first Public Printer of the United States. Visitors to the Government Printing Office are aware of his benevolent gaze from the Veterari’s landing of Building One, where a reproduction of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s classic bust looks down the marble steps at employees and patrons of the GPO Bookstore. Indeed, his spirit is very much a part of this agency which produces Government publications which make their way to libraries and individuals throughout America and to most of the nations of the world.

During his career, Franklin served as official printer to the colonies of Pennsylvania and Delaware. It was his responsibility to print the Government documents of his day. These included the proceedings of the respective colonial assemblies, as well as the laws they passed. One such work that is particularly well printed appeared in 1740, A Collection of Charters and Other Publick Acts relating to the Province of Pennsylvania. It is one of his many folio-sized documents, pamphlet bound. In this capacity, he well illustrates the pre- Independence pattern of colonial printing of official documents. He was a “Publick Printer” of his time, and is still a worthy model for Public Printers of today.

The Franklin who looks down the marble steps of Building One at entering workers and people in quest of Government publications, wishes us well on our 125th Anniversary. We, in turn, wish him well on his 280th birthday. Had he been alive when the U.S. Government Printing Office came into being his attitude toward its creation and toward those who served as craftsmen may well have been similar to that expressed when he visited another printing establishment in 1757. At that time he was in London where he had worked as a young man. Although famous and much sought after in England, he searched out the old print shop where he had once worked. Timperley’s Encyclopedta of Literary and Typographic Anecdote, recounts the event:

During his visit at this time, he went to Mr. Watts’ Printing office in Wildcourt, Lincoln’s Inn- fields; and entering the press-room, proceeded to a particular press, where two men were at work: “Come, my friends, ” said he, “we will drink together; it is now forty years since I worked like you at this press, as a journeyman printer. ” A gallon of porter was sent for, and the three drank “Success to Printing!”