Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson, 20 July 1768: phonetic spelling and transcription

To Mary Stevenson

Transcribed from ALS (in phonetic spelling): American Philosophical Society

Many writers, from the monk Orm in the early thirteenth century to George Bernard Shaw in the early twentieth, have experimented with methods of phonetic spelling. It was perhaps natural that Franklin, with his long exposure to the printed word and his varied and practical interests, should have been drawn into this company, and only surprising that he was in his sixties before he began his experimentation.3 The letter to Polly Stevenson that follows is his earliest known use of his new alphabet, and contains his clearest explanation of why he felt the need for one. Because the letter itself is anything but clear, at least at first glance, it is accompanied by a transcription.

At the same time Franklin sent Polly, as he mentions, some papers and a copy of his alphabet. The papers, not printed here, are all in the new orthography: quotations from the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Addison’s Campaign, etc., and a word list that might have been the first small step in composing a dictionary. An alphabet that is presumably the one he enclosed, and his explanations and comments upon it, follow the letter.4

Rits̸mɥnd, Ds̸ulɥi 20.–68

Diir Paali,

Yɨi intended to hev sent iu dhiz Pepers sunɥr, bɥt biiŋ bizi faargaat it.

Mr Kolman hez mended deeli: bɥt iur gud Mɥdhɥr hez bin indispoz’d uiħ e slɥit Fivɥr, atended uiħ mɥts̸ fiibilnes and uirines. S̸i uiuld naat aallaau mi to send iu uɥrd aav it at dhi tɥim, and iz naau beter.

Yɨi uis̸ iu to kaansider dhis Alfabet, and giv mi Instanses aaf sɥts̸ Iŋlis̸ Uɥrds and Saaunds az iu mee ħink kannaat perfektlɥi bi eksprest bɥi it. Yɨi am persueeded it mee bi kaamplited bɥi iur help. Ði greeter difikɥlti uil bi to briŋ it into ius. Haauevɥr, if Amendments eer nevɥr atemted, and ħiŋs kaantinu to gro uɥrs and uɥrs, dhee mɥst kɥm to bi in a rets̸ed Kaandis̸ɥn at last; sɥts̸ indiid ɥi ħink aaur Alfabet and Rɥitiŋ aalredi in; bɥt if ui go aan az ui hev dɥn e fiu Senturiz laanger, aaur uɥrds uil graduali siis to ekspres Saaunds, dhee uil onli stand faar ħiŋs, az dhi rittin uɥrds du in dhi Ts̸uiniiz Languads̸, huits̸ ɥi sɥspekt mɥit orids̸inali hev bin e litiral Rɥitiŋ lɥik dhat aaf Iurop, bɥt ħru dhi Ts̸eends̸ez in Pronɥsies̸ɥn braaaat aan bɥi dhi Kors aaf Eeds̸es, and ħru dhi aabstinet Adhirens aaf dhat Pipil to old Kɥstɥms and amɥŋ ɥdhɥrs to dheer old manɥr ov Rɥitiŋ, dhi orids̸inal Saaunds aaf Leters and Uɥrds eer laast, and no laangɥr kaansidered. Yɨi am, mɥi diir Frend, Iurz afeks̸ɥnetli,

B. Franklin

Richmond, July 20.—68

Dear Polly,

I intended to have sent you these Papers sooner, but being busy forgot it.

Mr. Coleman has mended daily;5 but your good Mother has been indispos’d with a slight Fever, attended with much feebleness and weariness. She would not allow me to send you word of it at the time and is now better.

I wish you to consider this Alphabet, and give me Instances of such English Words and Sounds as you may think can not perfectly be expressed by it. I am persuaded it may be completed by your help. The greater difficulty will be to bring it into use. However, if Amendments are never attempted and things continue to grow worse and worse they must come to be in a wretched Condition at last; such indeed I think our Alphabet and Writing already in; but if we go on as we have done a few Centuries longer, our words will gradually cease to express Sounds, they will only stand for things, as the written words do in the Chinese Language, which I suspect might originally have been a literal Writing like that of Europe, but through the Changes in Pronunciation brought on by the Course of Ages and through the obstinate Adherence of that People to old Customs, and among others to their old manner of Writing, the original Sounds of Letters and Words are lost, and no longer considered.6 I am, my dear Friend, Yours affectionately,

B Franklin.

Endorsed: Dr. Franklin’s Alphabet &ca.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3His interest in the general subject, however, went back for almost half a century. See above, VI, 177, and the headnote to his revision of the Lord’s Prayer printed at the end of this volume.

4Polly kept the enclosures for two months, transcribed them, and became proficient enough in the new alphabet to reply in it. See her letter below of Sept. 26, 1768, and the headnote to the document following this one.

5He was recovering from an operation. See BF to DF above, June 11, 1768.

6BF is off the track. Chinese writing is composed not of words but of characters, which are representations of objects or ideas and are not phonetically linked to the spoken word. Hence the written language, unlike those of Europe, does not depend upon the expression of sounds.

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