Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When Benjamin Franklin Wanted to Change the Alphabet

Smithsonian has the story of Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet.

From the piece...

It was the ultimate test of Franklin’s scholarship and polymathy, a phonetic alphabet designed to have a “more natural Order,” than the existing system. His proposal, “A Reformed Mode of Spelling,” opens with an analysis of spoken English in the form of a  table prioritizing the alphabet by sound and vocal effort. Franklin gave preference to “Sounds formed by the Breath, with none or very little help of Tongue, Teeth, and Lips; and produced chiefly in the Windpipe.”

Franklin’s analysis resulted in removing six letters from the alphabet – C, J, Q, W, X, AND Y– that were, in his view, redundant or confusing. The “hard” and “soft” sounds of a C, for example, can easily be replaced by a K and S. Franklin also limited the remaining letters to one sound, “as every letter ought to be,” including vowels. In the phonetic alphabet, “long” vowel pronunciations are achieved using double vowels. The changes weren’t all reductive. Franklin’s alphabet includes six letters of his  own devise: a letter that makes a “soft O” sound as in “folly” or “ball”; one that replaces all “sh” sounds as in “ship” or “function”; an “ng” sound; two “th” substitutes; and a letter that replaces both “um” and “un” letter combinations.

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