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The Case for Spelling Reform, by Benjamin Franklin

"It is from present usage only that the meaning of words is to be determined"


The Case for Spelling Reform, by Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

In this letter, composed while he was living in London, Benjamin Franklin defends his proposal to reform English spelling through the creation of a phonetically based alphabet. He was writing in response to this note from Miss Stephenson of Kensington:

I see many inconveniences, as well as difficulties, that would attend the bringing your letters and orthography into common use. All our etymologies would be lost, consequently we could not ascertain the meaning of many words; the distinction too between words of different meaning and similar sound would be useless, unless we living writers publish new editions. In short I believe you must let people spell on in their old way, and (as I find it easiest) do the same ourselves.
Though Franklin himself eventually lost interest in the scheme, it proved to be an influence on Noah Webster's plans to reform English spelling.

The Case for Spelling Reform

by Benjamin Franklin

Craven Street,
28th September 1768

Dear Madam:

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 any 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 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 time.

As to those, who do not spell well, if the two difficulties are compared--namely, 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. 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. It is, 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.

Now, as to the inconveniences you mention: the first is that "all our etymologies would be lost, and 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-ploughman, 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 you 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 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 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

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