In the final months of his long life, a debilitated Benjamin Franklin still found the strength to fulminate against recent trends in the printing trade. He was particularly incensed by the elimination of italics within sentences, all in the name of a bland uniformity.
“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,” he harrumphed in a letter dated December 26, 1789 to Noah Webster, the pioneering lexicographer of the American language. Over time, the frequent and regular use of capitals within sentences would likewise fade away.
Franklin, whose original trade of printer remained closest to his heart even after decades of scientific, political, and diplomatic triumph, separately proposed a simplified and more efficient phonetic alphabet for representing the English language. Among his innovations was the elimination of six letters – C, J, Q, W, X, and Y – as redundant or just plain confusing.
Webster used his own Dissertations on the English Language to review and discuss the system, although he then lacked the technology to publish Franklin’s unique phonetic symbols. These only appeared in print some years later. More about Franklin’s proposed system can be found here at the Smithsonian blog.
A simplified orthographical system was in perfect keeping with Franklin’s overall approach to language, which he saw primarily as a tool to the preservation and spread of knowledge, and to the individual personal advancement. It was not, he argued, an end unto itself.
As a result, Franklin emerged as a leading campaigner against the then-common practice of presenting much of intermediate and advanced education in Latin and Greek, a sentiment best summed up by one of his protégés, the revolutionary physician Benjamin Rush: “Do not men use Latin and Greek as the cuttlefish emit their ink, on purpose to conceal themselves from an intercourse with the common people?”
Franklin and his allies campaigned vigorously to reduce or eliminate the use of Classical language in the secondary schools and colleges, but the social prejudices of the colonial elite and their demands for a true “gentleman’s education” generally overwhelmed these efforts. Despite his lasting success in creating the future University of Pennsylvania, Franklin viewed his associated efforts to secure a full English-language curriculum in Philadelphia’s premier institution of learning as one of the biggest disappointments of a long, fruitful life.