Home > History > Thoughts on Language from One of Our Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin

Thoughts on Language from One of Our Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin

franklin1There has always been linguistic diversity in the United States. It has been estimated that approximately 250-1,000 indigenous language were spoken in North America at the time of European contact in the 15th century. German, Spanish and French flourished in colonial America through newspapers, churches, and public and private schools. 

At the beginning of the Republic, Germans were the largest non-English-speaking group in the Pennsylvania colony. Benjamin Franklin initially printed the first German books and German newspaper in the colonies during the 1730s until he was put out of business by more qualified German printers who later immigrated to the colony. Expressing alarm for the increasing political and economic power held by the Germans, Franklin wrote the following:

[W]hy should the Palantine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together, establish their Language and Manners, to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglyfying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. 

Franklin later changed his tune when he realized that he needed many of the Germans as political allies after the American revolution. Later in life Franklin supported Benjamin Rush in the creation of a publicly funded experiment in bilingual higher education. 

The more things change, the more things stay the same! Happy Independence Day!

Source- At War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety

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Categories: History
  1. July 10, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    This is a side to history that many people don’t talk about often. Thanks for addressing it here!!

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