Six New Letters for a Renovated Alphabet

Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh

Type is always on a sliding scale of ephemerality, rendered impermanent by its substrate, medium, or message. Even if the words are considered worth saving ? and in that distinction, we?ve already lost a large percentage of all typographic material ? digital type is trapped in its storage medium, lead is melted down, paper thins and yellows, ink fades, and stone is eroded. The technologies of type evolve and decay.

Type is the building material of written language, and language itself ? if it has a self ? is a system in constant motion: shedding skins of dead words; borrowing words from other languages; inventing words to reflect its users? habits and needs.

Type is built on the foundation of a writing system, from the building blocks listed in an alphabet. Here, at the level of the alphabet itself, we have surely reached bedrock: it is the stable and unchanging essence of all letters, the referent for all pieces of type? In fact, alphabetical solidity is nothing more than a temporal effect: if we could use time-lapse photography to revisit the development of the 26-letter Latin alphabet used to transcribe English, we?d see that letters have been discarded, added, and reshaped almost beyond recognition. The alphabet itself is malleable, temporary, subject to reform and revision.

In this talk, we present the alphabet reforms suggested by Benjamin Franklin, using them to uncover the multiple motivations of alphabet visionaries past and present. January 17, 2006, marks the 300-year anniversary of Benjamin Franklin?s birth, and for the past 5 years, a non-profit group in Philadelphia (for which I work) has been planning celebrations in his honor. Although relatively little-known in the UK, Franklin is a national icon in the US. A founding father, diplomat, printer, scientist, writer, and civic reformer, Franklin?s achievements include charting the Gulf Stream, writing the most widely published autobiography of all time, and introducing rhubarb and the soybean to the US. He invented the lightning rod, a new musical instrument, the flexible catheter, and, most importantly for our purposes, six new letters for a reformed alphabet.

Franklin wrote his alphabetic proposal in 1768, while living in London. ?Franklin Fonetic? consisted of 26 letters, but the conventional letterforms c, j, q, w, x, and y were all thrown out, to be replaced with new letterforms. Briefly, these new letters represented the following sounds:

1. law, caught

2. run, enough

3. this, breathe

4. singer, ring

5. she, sure, emotion, leash

6. thing, breath

The remaining letters of the traditional Latin alphabet were retained, but their sound value was narrowed to just one sound, or phoneme, so that, for example ?the g has no longer two different Sounds, which occasion?d Confusion, but is as every Letter ought to be, confin?d to one.? (Franklin, A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling)

Franklin?s first use of this alphabet was in a letter to his London landlady?s daughter, Polly Stevenson. She was living with her aunt in the country, and their correspondence is a mixture of flirtation and long-distance instruction: Franklin wrote to her at length and in complex detail about how electricity is conducted, how colors absorb heat, and how the moon affects tidal flows. Previous exposure to Franklin?s eclectic and experimental intelligence must explain the fact that on receiving a letter entirely written in a new alphabet, Polly simply transcribed it, and then replied in the new alphabet, listing the obstacles in the way of its widespread adoption.

Franklin had his new letters cast into type in Philadelphia, and they were used to print his ?Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling? eleven years later, in his collected Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces. But, as you may have deduced, his new alphabet remained temporary, his twisty variations on the letter ?h? exist now only as a historical curiosity. In between developing his alphabet in letters to Polly Stevenson, and the alphabet?s publication eleven years later, Franklin?s time was spent on the arguably more urgent tasks of drafting the Declaration of Independence, securing French support for the American Revolutionary War, and then shaping the Constitution of his newly formed country, the United States.

In a new country, filled with revolutionary spirit, Franklin?s alphabet did find some support, particularly in the person of Noah Webster, who pioneered American spellings, such as ?color,? ?center,? and ?organize,? and went on to publish the first American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. In 1785 and 1786, Webster was on the road, lecturing on language and spelling in Boston, Charleston, and just about everywhere in between. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was in the audience, and eagerly shared his own scheme with Webster, giving Webster free access to his library as well as bequeathing him special type for the reformed alphabet. Webster was persuaded: ?Your Excellency?s sentiments upon the subject ? have taught me to believe the reformation of our alphabet still practicable.? [1] Webster saw in Franklin?s alphabet a way to achieve his own aims: a cohesive, uniquely American, national identity: ??Language, as well as government, should be national,? Webster insisted in 1789. ?America should have her own distinct from all the world.?? [2]

For Webster, and a handful of others, true independence from Britain had to encompass language as well as politics, whether through alphabet reform or spelling reform, or both. A unique national alphabet would promote national unity, its code acting as a marker of difference, excluding ?non-Americans.? In a country re-inventing itself, the alphabet is never a neutral technology. Its influence extends far beyond the simple transcription of speech to encode political, religious, and cultural values. In the first quarter-century following the drafting of a constitution for the newly united states, Webster was joined in his alphabetic efforts by at least seven other patriotic innovators, including Abner Kneeland, who felt sure that ?Americans would abandon their twenty-six letter alphabet in favor of his set of thirty-five characters because ?The United States have changed from a Monarchical government to a republican; from dependence to independence. And why not change in other respects???? [3]

Webster did succeed in creating an American spelling (and, in the process, permanently confusing those of us who must move between two ? or more ? versions of English) but he ultimately abandoned alphabet reform as too radical. However, countries with identity crises are still prone to enlisting the symbolic power of alphabets in the service of encoding difference. Indeed, alphabet shifts have become so common in former Soviet republics that Atlantic Monthly magazine dubbed the phenomenon ?New-Alphabet Disease? in a 1997 article by Toby Lester. [4]

Azerbaijan, a leader in the field, has changed alphabets three times in the last hundred years: from Arabic to Latin (in the 1920s, inspired by the lack of correspondence between Arabic?s three vowels and Azerbaijani?s need for eight), from Latin to Cyrillic (in the 1930s, under Stalin?s decree) and now from Cyrillic to Latin again, to free themselves from communist rule with ?a drastic, immediately visible, and richly symbolic change.? [5] When change was initially suggested, under Gorbachev?s glasnost, a variety of factions began to lobby aggressively for different alphabets. Iranians and Islamic leaders promoted a return to Azerbaijan?s religious roots with Arabic. They were joined by Azerbaijani writers, making the case that a return to Arabic would unlock hundreds of years? worth of pre-1920s Azerbaijani literature and culture. Meanwhile, Turkish diplomats, Azerbaijani entrepreneurs, and computer scientists outlined the economic and social benefits of the Latin alphabet. Lester relates that, ?Zealous reformers in Turkmenistan, possibly getting carried away by the Latin alphabet?s financial promise, proposed that the $ and c (cents) symbol be the upper- and lower- case letters for the ?sh? sound.?

The transition to a uniquely Azerbaijani thirty-two letter Latin alphabet has not been smooth. For example, in January 1992, the Azerbaijani National Assembly spent days arguing over what letterform to choose to represent the most common sound in the language (the ?a? in ?hat?), ultimately choosing the letterform that represented that sound in the Azerbaijani variant of Cyrillic (rather than the Turkish letterform.) ?I was struggling for our little letter,? Shaig Safarov (an Azerbaijani political activist) said, ?It differentiates us from all other languages.? [6] This Azerbaijani variant of Cyrillic, incidentally, was created in a deliberate Stalinist attempt to isolate the Turkic nations. The result was that although the various Turkic peoples could understand each other?s speech, their Cyrillic alphabet varieties were sufficiently complex that they could not communicate in writing with each other.

Tartarstan then tried to follow Azerbaijan?s lead, only to provoke the Russian Duma into passing a law in November 2002 requiring all state languages within Russia to use the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian government was quite emphatically not blind to the power of letters: ?Russian TV said deputies made the move because they believe that using the same alphabet will unite the country.? [7] One deputy even called the proposed alphabet change a threat to ?Russia?s national security and integrity,? whereas those in favor of the Latin alphabet accused Russia of ?intruding on the genetics of human consciousness.? [8] ?Script innovators and reformers are often labeled as traitors? notes linguist Mark Sebba, citing examples from Haiti (where proponents of certain letters are accused of being agents of American imperialism) and Poland (whose 1930s alphabet reform represented for some a Soviet power grab, for others, a Jewish plot.)

There are numerous other examples of alphabetic reform inspired by nationalist, political, or religious sentiment, intended to unite a certain group and exclude others, and they have been implemented with varying degrees of success. In 1960, newly independent Somalia adopted a newly invented alphabet, ?Osmanian?, which blended influences from Italian, Arabic, and Ethiopic scripts (the direction of writing was Italian, the order of the letters, Arabic, and the actual letterforms were derived from the Ethiopic alphabet.) [9] This particular alphabet inspired a 1969 coup, and was officially abandoned in favor of a Latin alphabet in 1973.

Cult-leaders and dictators often turn to alphabetic reform for similar reasons of identity and exclusion. The Mormon Church invented their own temporary alphabet, Deseret, which was used for four religious books and one tombstone in Cedar City, Utah, before being abandoned. [10] A free Deseret font is available at http://home.earthlink.net/~slbartok/projects/fonts/htm, for anyone interested in expanding their alphabetic horizons. And finally, not to be outdone, North Korea?s official news agency reported on 22 August, this year, that Kim Jong Ils?s latest achievements are alphabetic, as he executes ?Immortal Feats for Unified Development of National Language.? [11] No images of his new letterforms seem to be available yet.

So, as these examples attest, Webster?s impulse to adopt Franklin?s alphabet in order to create group identity was far from unique. Franklin?s own impulse in creating the alphabet was quite different. He was a man who looked closely and with curiosity at the world around him, seeking ways to improve it wherever he saw the opportunity. His alphabet was conceived in the same spirit as his less smoky, more fuel-efficient house-heating stove, or his more easily cleaned and repaired street lamp. The alphabet, for Franklin, was not unlike a household tool, something to repair, rewire, and update. Improving the writing system would have the twin benefits of increasing the spread of literacy among native-speakers, as well as enhancing international understanding, making it easier for foreign speakers to learn English. Franklin, youngest son of a Boston soap-maker, and with less than two years of formal education, credited much of his ?rags to riches? success story to his habit of reading and was always anxious to share that opportunity with others.

As Franklin correctly noted, alphabets were developed in order to transcribe speech, but ?the Changes in Pronunciation brought on by the Course of Ages? combined with the tendency of alphabets to remain static ? ?set in stone? perhaps, or ?cast in lead? ? means that the two no longer corresponded accurately to each other, leading to the ?wretched Condition ? I think our Alphabet and Writing [are] already in? [12] By Franklin?s time, rising literacy rates following the invention of the printing press had cast a spotlight on the difficulty of representing the 40-something sounds of spoken English in a borrowed alphabet of 26 letters. In fact, printers had been somewhat to blame for narrowing the English alphabet: William Caxton used type made in continental Europe, which lacked the Anglo-Saxon letters thorn, yogh, and eth (sounds that went on to be expressed as ?th? in the, and ?gh? in ?night?, and ?th? in thread, although Caxton himself transcribed thorn as ?y?, hence ?Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.?)

Again, Franklin was not alone in attempting to re-unite the alphabet with the sound of spoken language. William Bullokar, a sixteenth-century printer, designed a 40 letter phonetic alphabet for the English language with ?rather Gothic? letterforms. [13] In the twentieth century, graphic designers Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschihold both developed phonetic (sans-serif) alphabets with new characters: Bayer for English, including new letters to represent the endings ?-ed?, ?-ory?, ?-ing?, and ?-ion?; Tschichold for German, with new letters for the sounds ?ch? and ?sch?.

George Bernard Shaw, who famously observed that the word fish may as well be written ?ghoti? (?gh? from laugh, ?o? from women, and ?ti? from nation) was so frustrated by the ?hopelessly inadequate alphabet? at his disposal, that he left money in his will to develop a new one. [14] The resulting competition attracted 467 entries, with the winner being Kingsley Read?s phonetically accurate alphabet of 48 letters (24 vowels and 24 consonants.) According to another clause of Shaw?s will, this new alphabet was used alongside the traditional alphabet in a new publication of his play, Androcles and the Lion. 53,000 copies were printed, with one copy given to each public library in Britain, the Commonwealth, and North and South America, and to all the national libraries of the world. (Shaw?s will also left money for an estimate to be made of the world?s man hours wasted in writing and printing English with an alphabet of 26 instead of 40 or more letters, and a valuation in money of those wasted hours, but this calculation appears not to have been carried out yet.) Read, who owned a lettering company supplying everything from neon shop signs to calligraphy, published a magazine called Shawscript for a number of years, and the alphabet attracted a lot of initial interest. Again, free Shaw fonts are available, for those of you now bursting to break free of the shackles of the Latin alphabet, at http://www.demeyere.com/Shavian/info.html. You can also download Ghoti Fingers, the virtual Shavian typewriter, here: http://www.saytheword.org.uk/shavian/ghotifingers.html.

During his lifetime, Shaw wrote his plays in Isaac Pitman?s shorthand. Pitman?s grandson, James, was another alphabet reformer, and the designer of the Initial Teaching Alphabet. This rather beautiful set of 44 lower-case letters was used to teach children how to write English in 140 of the UK?s 158 Local Education Authorities in 1966. [15] Since the idea was that children would ultimately transition to the traditional 26 letter alphabet, many of the new letters, such as ?ing? (?ng?) and ?chay? (?ch?) were designed to look like ligatures of the traditional letterforms, and children were taught to write them using the pen motion needed to form a traditional ?n? and ?g?, or ?c? and ?h?. Initial results were encouraging, with children learning to write using the Initial Teaching Alphabet performing at significantly higher levels than children learning their traditional A, B, Cs, and then transitioning to the Latin alphabet with no problems. Nonetheless, the scheme ran into the predictable difficulties of an entirely new alphabet (the limited range of materials printed in I.T.A, and the barrier the new alphabet erected between parents and children) and was gradually phased out in mainstream education. Although over the past hundred years there have been major or minor reforms to the writing systems of nearly every major language in the world, English has remained resistant, a language failed by ?the dead wreckage that accumulates and encumbers? it. [16] It is a language enslaved by its alphabet.

Another Franklin follower, William Thornton, took alphabet reform beyond the English alphabet, imagining a perfect, universal alphabet (although he only succeeded in ?perfecting? English). This idea, as old as Babel, that a perfectly rational alphabet could be a means to enable universal understanding and sympathy, has found support from utopianists ? not to mention cultural imperialists ? throughout history. Perhaps the most successful new alphabet of this genre is the International Phonetic Alphabet, a collaborative effort begun in Paris in 1886. Its aim was to create a universal alphabet in which one symbol would be used for the same sounds, in all languages, and so each language?s alphabet would consist of a different selection from the basic set of hundreds of symbols. Most of its new letters were created by modifying letters of the Latin alphabet in some way, either by using small capital letters, turning the original letterform upside down or back to front, or adding a flourish (and here, one of Franklin?s letters finds a reprieve from the dustbin of history, as the letter engma.) Others were borrowed from the Greek alphabet, and a lucky few were invented, drawing on the typical shapes of the Latin alphabet. This writing system, although still imperfect, has escaped the fate of most new alphabets, and is still going strong today, providing the phonetic translation of the words in my Chambers English Dictionary.

A few language experts speculate that the hour for widespread reform of the English Latin alphabet is now upon us, 300 years after Franklin?s birth. Typographer Hrant Papazian suggests that alphabetic type will cast off its adherence to the shape of writing, and thereby reform itself, becoming better suited to the physiology of human vision, as well as the adult reading process. Printer, typographer, and academic Joanna Drucker finds in emoticons and the Palm Pilot?s Graffiti alphabet compelling evidence that the shift in technology (from movable type to digital fonts) will force the alphabet reform to which English has been so resistant. And for those of you who cannot wait for the revolution to come, you can personally visit and use the Alphabet Synthesis Machine online (at http://alphabet.tmema.org) to create and evolve your own writing system. You can download it as a PC format True Type font, and your creation will be entered into the machine?s archive ? but, chances are, your alphabet will still be as temporary as Franklin?s.

1 Noah Webster to Benjamin Franklin, May 24, 1786, quoted in Jill Lepore, A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 31.

2 Noah Webster, cited in Jill Lepore, A is for American, 4

3 Abner Kneeland, quoted in Jill Lepore, A is for American, 204

4 Lester, Toby. 1997. New-Alphabet Disease. Atlantic, July, 20

5 Lester, ibid.

6 Lester, ibid.

7 BBC Monitoring report, cited in Sebba, Mark. 2003. Ideological and Alphabets in the former USSR. Working paper, Centre for Language in Social Life, Lancaster University, U.K., 1

8 Sebba, ibid. 9, 11

9 Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995), 45

12 Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson, Richmond, July 20, 1768, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, (Yale University Press) vol. 15, 173b

13 Colin Clair, History of Printing in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 25

14 Shaw, George Bernard, in his Preface to R.A. Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/Vivian.c/shawpreface.htm)

15 The story of the Initial Teaching Alphabet was found in Hall, Jeremy. ?The Initial Teaching Alphabet.? Eye Magazine 55

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