When America Almost Invented Its Own Language

“The language denotes the man. A coarse or refined character finds its expression naturally in a coarse or refined phraseology.” —Christian Nestell Bovee

In A Nutshell

Ben Franklin hated bad spelling, and the English language seemed predisposed to annoy him. In order to make language less complicated and less messy (and to have a language that would add to the national identity of the burgeoning United States), Franklin created his own language. It’s still absolutely readable and understandable today, spelled and spoken phonetically, with the addition and subtraction of a handful of letters. It didn’t take off, but the English Spelling Society is continuing his work in creating an English that’s easier to read, write and remember.

The Whole Bushel

The French speak French, the Spanish speak Spanish . . . and Americans speak what’s sort of a bastardized cousin of British English. That almost wasn’t the case, though, and one of our founding fathers was determined that America should speak and write in its own unique language.

Benjamin Franklin was a writer and a printer, and poor writing bothered him. So did poor spelling, and he was the first to admit that English was an incredibly confusing language. There wasn’t much in the way of logic behind it, and that irritated him. He called it disorderly and confused, and, if there’s anything we know about Franklin, he wasn’t about to sit quietly and not try to fix what he saw as a problem.

Part of the biggest problem that Franklin saw were redundant letters. There was absolutely no need for “C,” when any sound you needed to use it to represent couldn’t be replaced with a “K” or an “S,” he felt. Other letters he felt were redundant and needed to be removed from the new American alphabet were J, Q, W, X, and Y.

His alphabet required the addition of six new letters, though, and included ones that would signify sounds like the hard “J” as in “James” and the “sh” in “ship.”

By removing the offending letters and introducing the new ones, Franklin developed something akin to a new, American language. Everything would be spelled phonetically, everything would be simplified, and it would cut down on bad spelling and other errors while making it easier for people to learn. His revised language was also easier to speak and was made up of a series of what he called simpler sounds, formed in the throat instead of with the mouth.

Franklin wrote several letters in his new language, and it’s close enough to that one that we’re all familiar with that it can easily be read and understood, even not being familiar with his new, additional letters. His documents were dated 1768, but it wasn’t until 1779 that his new alphabet was published in full.

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Needless to say, it didn’t take off. Franklin testified that those that knew English would only need a week’s worth of practice reading or writing his new version to become fluent in it, and supporters of changing the national language to Franklin’s had some incredibly patriotic reasons for wanting to do so.

In 1789, Noah Webster came out in favor of Franklin’s language, talking about it in his Dissertations on the English Language. He claimed that in order for a country to be taken seriously and recognized as a true, independent nation, it should have its own language and that they were at the perfect point in history to embrace it. There were a ton of changes going on in the world at the time, and it was the perfect chance to adopt a national language as a part of the national identity that was evolving.

Webster was pretty much on his own in support of the new language, though, and in spite of their best efforts, the changes weren’t appreciated. Critics claimed they were corrupting what was a perfectly respectable language to begin with, and they weren’t going to have any of Franklin’s nonsense.

Ironically, the English Spelling Society is recently picking up on the idea, if not the changes in their entirety or the idea that it would be an American-only language. The society was assembled with the hopes of doing exactly what Franklin wanted—simplifying the English language. Citing numbers like the 40 percent of British citizens that rely on spell-check and auto-correct, along with the longer time frame that it takes children to learn English compared to other languages, they think it needs to be less complicated. The society was formed in 1908, but they’re targeting 2015 as their start date for an International Spelling Congress to help clear up some of the problems that Franklin saw centuries ago.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Children of the Code: Benjamin Franklin
Dissertations on the English Language, by Daniel Webster
Smithsonian: Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet
Telegraph: Conference aims to ‘replace English spelling system’