Voices of Earlier English: Benjamin Franklin Declares Independence

Benjamin Franklin, in creating his phonetic alphabet in the 1760s, left us a reasonably good description of his pronunciation of 18th century New England English. So just for kicks, here's me reading the opening of the American Declaration of Independence in a reconstruction of Benjamin Franklin's own pronunciation:



NOT at all what modern Americans would imagine a Founding Father sounding like

Note the following:

The lack of allophonic variation for the historical short /a/. — Franklin seems to have an English that raised short /a/ to [æ] in the 16th century without ever lowering it again to /a~ɑ/ before /r/ in the 18th. With the same vowel in hand /hænd/ as in large /læːrdʒ/. It is quite possible that Franklin is unduly influenced by traditional English spelling there, but transcribing are as if it were /ɛr/ if anything suggests the opposite of lowering. This would make sense as a kind of relic of English-speakers who left Southern England for America some time in the 1600s. The first witnesses to the lowering of pre-rhotic /æː/ date to the middle of the 18th century. It is unambiguously attested by Mather Flint in the prestige speech of the 1740s. Franklin's un-lowered /æ/ would be a generation or two behind schedule, but would probably not have been negatively evaluated by Londoners. John Walker's pronunciation dictionary in 1791 suggests indirectly that there were varieties of standard English that resisted this lowering.

The quality of /r/. — Franklin's actual description of the sound can only be an alveolar trill or tap. But was it a tap/trill everywhere? Given that he uses art as a keyword for this sound, where the /r/ is in coda-position, it's certainly possible. But a trill with more approximant allophones in coda position would be in keeping with other descriptions of upper class English in the early part of the century. Mather Flint in the 1740s equates the English R with the French R (which was at that time a trill) and mentions that it is more weakly pronounced at the ends of syllables. Franklin's description of his speech is at the very least consistent with the self-perceptions of a speaker who had a trilled /r/ in initial position, but an approximant [ɹ] in coda.

The vowels /o: e: i: u:/ are still clear vowels with no diphthongization. An extremely conservative value /ɛ:/ instead of /e:/ would also be consistent with Franklin's description, but contemporaries describe this lexical set quite unambiguously in terms of French close E, and there is no reason to think Franklin was at odds with Londoners on this point.

The vowels of SOUND and MIND have a more centralized starting point /ǝʊ~ɔʊ/ /ǝi/.

Franklin seems not to be sensitive to any distinction between the vowels of food and good. This is disconcerting to historians of the language, but the distribution of /u: ʌ ʊ/ had not yet fully stabilized. There appears to have been a good deal of variation in these lexical sets among different speakers. Franklin for his part seems to treat /u: ʊ/ as interchangeable, while having a separate symbol only for /ʌ/. 

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