Behind the Scenes: Happy Birthday, Ben Franklin! You’re Quite a Character!

Have you heard complaints about the deterioration of the language? How kids don’t learn cursive anymore? How texting is ruinous? Well, it’s nothing new!

benjamin_franklin_portraitToday, in honor of Ben Franklin’s 313th birthday, I’d like to invoke a birthday Festivus and air his grievances.

Ben Franklin is a historical rock star with his endless curiosity, sharp wit, generous sharing of his inventions, and work as a Founding Father. Though most of his ideas were applauded, his new alphabet, sensible as it seemed, wasn’t well received. Researching Ben (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) for AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET proved entertaining and enlightening. The man was quite a character.

For me, the most revealing finds in the research process are personal letters of historical figures. They give you a sense of personality and provide insights into the time and place.

bf nw tea
©Elizabeth Baddeley

Ben wrote his final letter to Noah Webster on Dec. 26, 1789, just a few months before his death. In it, he thanks Noah for sending a copy of his book, Dissertations on the English Language. Then, he asks his collaborator in their “spelling revolution” to take care of a few more issues.

“It is an excellent Work, and will be greatly useful in turning the Thoughts of our Countrymen to correct Writing. Please to accept my Thanks for it, as well as for the great Honor you have done me, in its Dedication. I ought to have made this Acknowledgment sooner, but much Indisposition prevented me. 

I cannot but applaud your Zeal for preserving the Purity of our Language, both in its Expressions and Pronunciation, and in correcting the popular Errors, several of our States are continually falling into with respect to both.”

Noah definitely had zeal for the English language!

Then Ben proceeds to tell Noah what else he’d like addressed. (Easy-going Ben seems a bit impatient.)

  1. He complains about the new usage of improved and opposed.
  2. Also, he’s opposed to 3 nouns that have become verbs: notice, advocate, and progress.

“If you should happen to be of my Opinion with respect to these Innovations you will use your Authority in reprobating them.”

  1. Latin is being neglected.
  2. Ben then turns his attention to some printing conventions, first lamenting the loss of capitals for nouns. (Printer Ben gets more irritated.)

franklin1877“In examining the English Books that were printed between the Restoration and the Recession of George the 2d, we may observe, that all Substantives were begun with a Capital… This Method has, by the Fancy of Printers, of late Years, been laid aside; from an Idea, that suppressing the Capitals shews the Character to greater Advantage; those Letters, prominent above the Line, disturbing its even, regular Appearance.”

  1. It seems italics was going by the wayside, too.

“From the same Fondness for an even and uniform Appearance of Characters in the Line the Printers have of late banished also the Italic Types, in which Words of Importance to be attended to in the Sense of the Sentence, and Words on which an Emphasis should be put in Reading, used to be printed.”

  1. And…the S. That long S in colonial type that looks like an f and makes old documents difficult to read…Gone. (He’s getting crankier.)

“And lately another Fancy has induced some Printers to use the short round s instead of the long one, which formerly served well to distinguish a Word readily by its varied Appearance. Certainly the omitting this prominent Letter makes the Line appear more even; but renders it less immediately legible; as the paring all Men’s Noses might smoothe and level their Faces, but would render their Physiognomies less distinguishable.”2554301131_9538332400

  1. And furthermore….the ink.

“Add to all these Improvements backward [totally Ben!], another modern Fancy, that grey Printing is more beautiful than black; hence the English new Books are printed in so dim a Character as to be read with Difficulty by old Eyes, unless in a very strong Light and with good Glasses.”

AND with all these printing problems…

“…let us consider the Assistance it affords in Reading well aloud to an Auditory. In so doing the Eye generally slides forward three or four Words before the Voice. If the Sight clearly distinguishes what the coming Words are, it gives time to order the Modulation of the Voice to express them properly. But if they are obscurely printed, or disguised by omitting the Capitals and long s’s,or otherwise, the Reader is apt to modulate wrong, and finding he has done so, he is obliged to go back and begin the Sentence again; which lessens the Pleasure of the Hearers.”

  1. Which brings us to questions….

“We are sensible that when a Question is met with in Reading, there is a proper Variation to be used in the Management of the Voice. We have therefore a Point, called an Interrogation, affix’d to the Question in order to distinguish it. But this is absurdly placed at its End, so that the Reader does not discover it, ’till he finds he has wrongly modulated his Voice and is therefore obliged to begin again the Sentence.”

  1. And plays…

“…the Word aside is placed at the End of the Speech when it ought to precede it, as a Direction to the Reader that he may govern his Voice accordingly.”

  1. Though he complimented Noah’s book in the opening… (The filter’s down!)

“After these general Observations permit me to make one that I imagine may regard your Interest. It is that your Spelling-Book is miserably printed here, so as in many Places to be scarcely legible, and on wretched Paper. If this is not attended to, and the new one Lately advertised as coming out should be preferable in those Respects, it may hurt the future Sale of your’s.”

He closes his letter in the usual, polite manner…

“I congratulate you on your Marriage of which the Newspapers inform me. My best Wishes attend you, being, with sincere Esteem Sir, Your most obedient and most humble Servant
B Franklin” 

bf toss letters
©Elizabeth Baddeley

Yes, Ben had more than a few pet peeves. And like with his new alphabet, which the public judged more INCONVENIENT than the old one, no one took on his cause to restore the purity of the language.

In the comments, feel free to air your language grievances. Ben would surely appreciate your vigilance.

But just know that time marches on. And so does language.

Thank you, Ben for leaving us with so much to write about!

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin to Noah Webster, December 26, 1789. In The papers of Benjamin Franklin.

6 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Happy Birthday, Ben Franklin! You’re Quite a Character!

  1. Language does evolve, so true Ben! Ok with me as long as we find a way to listen and communicate with one another. I appreciate respect and civility though!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading your post! Agree with Cathy’s comment. Communicating with one another is most important in this age of technology. I have problems that kids don’t know how to sign their name for documents like driver’s licenses etc. — a discussion on the “Today Show” this morning. They only print. But the world is changing.

    Liked by 1 person

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