Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Eternal Lament of the Letter Z

The letter Z has it hard, being stuck at the end of the alphabet.  Lots of alphabet books play with this theme, with Z and other letters towards the back of the alphabet wishing to be bumped up to the front of the line, among them Z is for Moose, A Call for A New Alphabet, and AlphaOops!: The Day Z Went First.  But who knew that Benjamin Franklin wrote a sketch suggesting exactly that?

In Jill Lepore's fascinating and beautifully written biography of Franklin's sister Jane, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, she quotes from this very work, entitled The Petition of the Letter Z.  Franklin writes that Z laments "That he is not only plac'd at the Tail of the Alphabet, when he had as much Right as an other to be at the Head; but is, by the Injustice of his Enemies totally excluded from the Word WISE, and his place injuriously filled by a little, hissing, crooked, serpentine, venomous Letter called S."  Lepore writes that "The letter Z's petition is denied, however, the judges urging, 'that Z be admonished to be content with his Station, forbear Reflections upon his Brother Letters, & remember his own small Usefulness, and the little Occasion there is for him in the Republick of Letters, since S, whom he so despises, can well serve instead of him.'"

Franklin also developed a new alphabet, seeking to create a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds.  That is, each letter would only make one sound (unlike c, as we use it) and each sound would only be represented by a single letter (that is, sounds like "ch" would not need to be represented by two letters).  Obviously, it never caught on.  But such an alphabet would have proved useful to those without formal education, like Franklin's sister Jane, as well as to those who, despite their education, find English spelling almost impossible.  Because the spelling of American English has changed over time, and because Jane Franklin's lack of a formal education meant her spelling was largely phonetic, Lepore writes in a note to the reader, "All original English spellings have been retained.  Spelling is part of the story."  I told you her writing was beautiful!  Even in a note to the reader.

And Z never seems to give up hope.

What other books do you know where Z seeks a more prominent position in the alphabet?

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