Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson, 28 September 1768: phonetic spelling and transcription

To Mary Stevenson

Transcribed from the text in phonetic spelling in Benjamin Vaughan, ed., Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces … by Benj. Franklin, LL.D. and F.R.S. (London, 1779), pp. 473–8.

[September 28, 1768]

Diir Madam,

Ði aabds̸eks̸ɥn iu meek to rektifɥiiŋ aaur alfabet, “dhat it uil bi atended uidh inkaanviniensiz and difikɥltiz,” iz e natural uɥn; faar it aaluaz aakɥrz huen eni refaarmes̸ɥn iz propozed ; huedhɥr in rilids̸ɥn, gɥvernment, laaz, and iven daaun az lo az rods and huil karids̸iz. Ði tru kuests̸ɥn dhen, is naat huedhɥr dhaer uil bi no difikɥltiz aar inkaanviniensiz; bɥt huedher dhi difikɥltiz mê naat bi sɥrmaaunted; and huedhɥr dhi kaanviniensiz uil naat, aan dhi huol, bi grêtɥr dhan dhi inkaanviniensiz. In dhis kes, dhi difikɥltiz er onli in dhi biginiŋ aav dhi praktis: huen dhê er uɥns ovɥrkɥm, dhi advanteds̸ez er lastiŋ. To ɥidhɥr iu aar mi, hu spel uel in dhi prezent mod, ɥi imads̸in dhi difikɥlti aav ts̸ends̸iŋ dhat mod faar dhi nu, iz naat so grêt, bɥt dhat ui mɥit pɥrfektli git ovɥr it in a uiiks rɥitiŋ. Az to dhoz hu du naat spel uel, if dhi tu difikɥltiz er kɥmpêrd, [viz.] dhat aav tits̸iŋ dhem tru speliŋ in dhi prezent mod, and dhat aav tits̸iŋ dhem dhi nu alfabet and dhi nu speliŋ akaardiŋ to it; ɥi am kaanfident dhat dhi latɥr uuld bi bɥi far dhi liist. Ðê natɥrali faal into dhi nu meħɥd alredi, az mɥts az dhi imperfeks̸ɥn aav dher alfabet uil admit aav; dhêr prezent bad speliŋ iz onli bad, bikaaz kaantreri to dhi prezent bad ruls: ɥndɥr dhi nu ruls it uuld bi gud. Ði difikɥlti aav lɥrniŋ to spel uel in dhi old uê iz so grêt, dhat fiu atên it; ħaauzands and ħaauzands rɥitiŋ aan to old eds̸, uidhaaut ever biiŋ ebil to akuɥir it. ’Tiz, bisɥidz, e difikɥlti kaantinuali inkriisiŋ; az dhi saaund graduali veriz mor and mor fraam dhi speliŋ: and to faarenɥrs it mêks dhi lɥrniŋ to pronaauns aaur langueds̸, az riten in aaur buks, almost impaasibil.

Naau az to “dhi inkaanviniensiz” iu mens̸ɥn. Ði fɥrst iz; dhat “aaaal aaur etimaalods̸iz uuld bi laast, kaansikuentli ui kuld naat asɥrteen dhi miiniŋ aav meni uɥrds.” Etimaalods̸iz er at prezent veri ɥensɥrten; bɥt sɥts̸ az dhê er, dhi old buks uuld stil prizɥrv dhem, and etimaalods̸ists uuld dhêr fɥind dhem. Uɥrds in dhi kors aav tɥim, ts̸ends̸ dher miiniŋs, az uel az dher speliŋ and pronɥnsies̸ɥn; aand ui du naat luk to etimaalods̸i faar dher prezent miiniŋs. If ɥi s̸uld kaal e man e Neev and e Vilen, hi uuld hardli bi satisfɥid uiħ mɥi teliŋ him, dhat uɥn aav dhi uɥrds orids̸inali signifɥid onli e lad aar sɥrvant; and dhi ɥdhɥr, an ɥndɥr plaauman, aar dhi inhabitant aav e vileds̸. It iz fraam prezent iuseds̸ onli, dhi miiniŋ aav uɥrds iz to bi ditɥrmined.

Iur sekɥnd inkaanviniens iz, dhat “dhi distinks̸ɥn bituiin uɥrds aav difɥrent miiniŋ and similar saaund uuld bi distraaɥid.” Ðat distinks̸ɥn iz aalredi distraaɥid in pronaaunsiŋ dhem; and ui rilɥi aan dhi sens alon aav dhi sentens to asɥrteen, huits̸ aav dhi several uɥrds, similar in saaund, ui intend. If dhis iz sɥfis̸ent in dhi rapiditi aav diskors, it uil bi muts̸ mor so in riten sentenses; huits̸ mê bi red lezs̸urli; and atended to mor partikularli in kes aav difikɥlti, dhan ui kan atend to e past sentens, huɥil e spikɥr iz hɥrɥiiŋ ɥs alaaŋ uiħ nu uɥns.

Iur ħɥrd inkaanviniens iz, dhat “aaaal dhi buks alredi riten uuld bi iusles.” Ðis inkaanviniens uuld onli kɥm aan graduali, in e kors aav eds̸es. Iu and ɥi, and ɥdhɥr naau liviŋ ridɥrs, uuld hardli faarget dhi ius aav dhem. Piipil uuld long lɥrn to riid dhi old rɥitiŋ, dho dhê praktist dhi nu. And dhi inkaanviniens iz naat greter, dhan huat hes aktuali hapend in a similar kes, in Iteli. Faarmerli its inhabitants aaaal spok and rot Latin: az dhi langueds̸ ts̸ends̸d, dhi speliŋ faalo’d it. It iz tru dhat prezent, e miir ɥnlarn’d Italien kanaat riid dhi Latin buks; dho dhe er stil red and ɥndɥrstud bɥi meni. Bɥt, if dhi speliŋ had nevɥr bin ts̸ends̸ed, hi uuld naau hev faaund it mɥts̸ mor difikɥlt to riid and rɥit hiz on languads̸; faar riten uɥrds uuld hev had no rilês̸ɥn to saaunds, dhe uuld onli hev stud faar dhiŋs; so dhat if hi uuld ekspres in rɥitiŋ dhi ɥidia hi hez, huen hi saaunds dhi uɥrd Vescovo, hi mɥst iuz dhi leterz Episcopus. In s̸aart, huatever dhi difikɥltiz and inkaanviniensiz naau er, dhe uil bi mor iizili sɥrmaaunted naau, dhan hiraftɥr; and sɥm tɥim aar ɥdhɥr, it mɥst bi dɥn; aar aaur rɥitiŋ uil bikɥm dhi sêm uidh dhi Ts̸ɥiniiz, as to dhi difikɥlti aav lɥrniŋ and iuziŋ it. And it uuld alredi hev bin sɥts̸, if ui had kaantinud dhi Saksɥn speliŋ and rɥitiŋ, iuzed bɥi our forfadhers. ɥi am, mɥi diir frind, iurs afeks̸ɥnetli,

B. Franklin.


London, Craven-street, Sept. 28, 1768.

Dear Madam,

The objection you make to rectifying our alphabet, “that it will be attended with inconveniences and difficulties,” 9 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 difficulties may not be surmounted; and 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 foreigners1 it makes the learning to pronounce our language, as written in our books, almost impossible.

Now as to “the inconveniences” you mention-the first is; “that all our etymologies would be lost, consequently we could not ascertain the meaning of many words.” 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 plowman, or the inhabitant of a village. It is from present usage only, that the meaning of words is to be determined.

Your second inconvenience is, that “the distinction between words of different meaning and similar sound would be destroyed.” That distinction is already destroyed in pronouncing them; and you 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 you can attend to a past sentence, while a speaker is hurrying us along with new ones.

Your third inconvenience is, that “all the books already written would be useless.” This inconvenience would only come on gradually, in a course of ages. You, and I, and other now living readers, would hardly forget the use of them. People would long learn to read the old writing, though they practised 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 follow’d it. It is true that at present, a mere unlearn’d 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, 2 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 Episcopus. 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. I am, my dear friend, yours affectionately,

B. Franklin.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9See p. 216.

1[Vaughan’s editorial note:] Dr. Franklin used to lay some little stress on this circumstance, when he occasionally spoke on the subject. “A dictionary formed on this model would have been serviceable to him, he said, even as an American;” because from the want of public examples of pronunciation in his own country, it was often difficult to learn the proper sound of certain words, which occurred very frequently in our English writings, and which of course every American very well understood as to their meaning.

I think I have seen a French grammar, which endeavoured to represent the French pronunciation, by a resolution of it into English letters; but for want of proper characters, it seemed an embarrassed business. Is not the bad spelling observed in French manuscripts, owing in some degree to the great variance between their orthography and pronunciation?

2[Vaughan’s note:] That is, supposing it still to have kept up to its old form of Latin spelling, and not to have changed to the present form of Italian spelling.

Index Entries