Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet

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Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet was Benjamin Franklin's proposal for a spelling reform of the English language. The alphabet was based on the Latin alphabet used in English.

The alphabet[edit]

Franklin modified the standard English alphabet by omitting the letters c, j, q, w, x, and y, and adding new letters to explicitly represent the open-mid back rounded and unrounded vowels, and the consonants [ʃ], [ŋ], [ð], and [θ]. It was one of the earlier proposed spelling reforms to the English language.

The alphabet consisted of 26 letters in the following order:[1]

Franklin's proposed phonetic alphabet
Letter o (approximately) α e i u ɥ (approximately) h
Letter name o a e i u uh huh
Pronunciation (IPA) /oʊ/ /ɔː/ and
/æ/ /ɛ/ (sometimes modern /eɪ/) /ɪ/, /j/, and unstressed /i/ /ʊ/, /uː/, and /w/ /ʌ/ /h/
Letter g k ի or ̊ի (approximately) ŋ n r t d
Letter name gi ki ish ing en r ti di
Pronunciation (IPA) /ɡ/ /k/ /ʃ/ /ŋ/ /n/ /r/ /t/ /d/
Letter l ſ s (same as ſ, but only used at the end of a word) z (approximately) ˇh̢ or ᷄h̢ (approximately) f v
Letter name el es ez eth edh ef ev
Pronunciation (IPA) /l/ /s/ (and sometimes word-final /z/) /z/ /θ/ /ð/ /f/ /v/
Letter b p m
Letter name b pi em
Pronunciation (IPA) /b/ /p/ /m/

Other English phonemes are represented as follows:

  • /hw/ is represented as hu (as in huɥi for why).
  • // is represented as ɥi (as in ɥiz for eyes).
  • // is represented cɩu (as in hcɩus for house).
  • // is represented (as in edի for age).
  • //, at the time more probably [eː~ɛː], is represented as ee or e (as in leet for late or kes for case).
  • /ɛər/ is represented as eer (as in keer for care or ᷄ⱨeer for their).
  • /ɜːr/ and /ər/ are represented as ɥr (as lɥrn for learn).
  • // is represented as ii or i (as in ſtriim for stream).
  • /ɔɪ/ is represented cɩɥi (as in distrcɩɥi for destroy).
  • /ɔːr/ is represented cɩr (as in fcɩrget for forget).
    • /r/, at the time separate, is represented or (as in kors for course).
  • // is represented (as in tիit for cheat).
  • /ʒ/ is represented (as in mezիɥr for measure).
  • Unstressed vowels are generally represented by the letters used to represent their stressed equivalents. What today is considered a schwa is mostly represented with ɥ, although whenever spelled in standard English with a, Franklin maintains the symbol a.
/ɔː/...../ʌ/...../ŋ/...../ð/...../θ/...../ʃ/; The phonemes immediately above provide the sounds in IPA of the extra symbols (above them) which Franklin devised for his phonetic alphabet.
Sample text in Franklin's phonetic alphabet from a letter to Franklin.


Franklin's proposed alphabet included seven letters to represent vowels. This set consisted of two new letters, in addition to five letters from the existing English alphabet: a, e, i, o, u. The first new letter was formed as a ligature of the letters o and a, and used to represent the sound [ɔ] (as written in IPA). The second, ɥ, was used for [ʌ].

Franklin proposed the use of doubled letters to represent what he called long vowels, represented by modern phonemes thus: /ɔː/ as the long-vowel variant for /ɒ/ (or, in his notation, cɩcɩ versus ), // for /ɛ/ (ee versus e), and // for /ɪ/ (ii versus i). However, these distinctions appear not perfectly identical to the distinctions today; for example, the only word shown to use cɩcɩ is the word all, but not other words that in modern notation would use /ɔː/. This discrepancy may reflect Franklin's own inconsistencies, but, even more likely, it reflects legitimate differences in the English phonology of his particular time and place.

In his examples of writing in the proposed alphabet, Franklin contrasts long and short uses of his letter e, with the words "mend" and "remain," respectively spelled in Franklin's system as "mend" and "remeen." In this system, the doubled "ee" is used to represent the /eɪ/ sound in "late" and "pale." Likewise, "ii" is used to represent the /iː/ sound in "degrees", "pleased", and "serene." One of Franklin's correspondences written in the new alphabet[2] is inconsistent in this regard, representing the /eɪ/ sound in "great" and "compared" with the accented letter "ê" instead of "ee".

Franklin does not appear to make a distinction between the modern // and /ʊ/ phonemes, which likely reveals another difference between eighteenth-century English pronunciation versus modern pronunciation.


Franklin's proposed alphabet included nineteen letters to represent consonants. This set consisted of four new letters, in addition to fifteen letters from the existing English alphabet: b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, z. New letters were proposed to replace the English digraphs ng, sh, voiced th, and voiceless th. New consonant digraphs based on these new letters were used to represent the affricate sounds of ch in cherry and j in January.

The most influential of Franklin's six new characters appears to have been the letter eng, ŋ, for "ng". It was later incorporated into the IPA. Alexander Gill the Elder had used this letter in 1619.[3]


  1. ^ Franklin, Benjamin. A Reformed Mode of Spelling. In Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces, pages 467-478. London, 1779.
  2. ^ Letter from Benjamin Franklin, dated 28 Sept 1768, reprinted in Franklin, Benjamin. A Reformed Mode of Spelling. In Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces, pages 467-478. London, 1779.
  3. ^ The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal

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