Noah Webster Essay, Research Paper
Noah Webster, familiar to most Americans as the writer of the first American dictionary, worked as a schoolteacher in the late eighteenth century. As he taught, he came to realize that there were some major problems with the way English was taught in the American schools. The United States of America had recently declared its independence from England, and was struggling to form its own identity. The schools were still using textbooks from England, and these books varied in consistency when it came to spelling, pronunciation and grammar (Short Summary Website). As a teacher, and as a patriot, Webster felt a need for an American textbook. He wanted consistency and he wanted it to reflect that there was an American dialect of English that was distinctive from that of England (Bett Website). He had also noted that the social classes of England were often distinguished by differences in dialect, and he wished the United States to have a single, distinctive dialect that would rise above differences in class (Bett Website).
As a result of these goals, in 1783 he published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. This textbook, later republished in 1788 as The American Spelling Book, standardized spelling and grammar for the American dialect. The preface to the speller states his objective for the speller as
“To diffuse a uniformity and purity of language in America, to
destroy the provincial differences that originate in the trifling differences of
dialect and produce reciprocal ridicule, to promote the interests of
literature and the harmony of the United States…” (Blue-Backed Speller
The new speller, nicknamed the “blue-backed speller” for the blue paper that lined the cover, officially recognized the difference between American and British dialects of English (Webster, Noah Encarta). Although it did not cover a great deal, it laid the foundation for his later dictionaries. It included distinctly American spellings of words and pronunciations. It also supported Webster’s belief in democracy. By seeking to standardize the learning of language in American classrooms, he was putting into play a belief that the semantics of a language play a key role in a person’s power to create a system of ideas, thus creating a more educated citizen able to participate in a democratic system (Noah Webster’s American Dictionary Website).
This book was revolutionary not only because it sought to “Americanize” the classroom, but because of the tone of the book. Most previous grammars were prescriptive, meaning that they informed the student how the words should be spoken or spelled. The “Blue-Backed Speller,” on the other hand, was a descriptive work, meaning that it merely showed how words were actually used and pronounced by real speakers of the language (Millward 245).
Although the blue-backed speller was a great success, it merely provided Webster with a paycheck that enabled him to compile what would be his greatest work: a complete dictionary of the English language that was tailored to the speakers of the United States. Webster wanted a dictionary that was not only easy to use, but wished it to follow the descriptive philosophy that he had begun with his speller. As a result, he streamlined the spellings of many words (Brett Website), and in 1806 he published his A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. With a total of 28,000 entries, he had made quite a few changes (Millward 305).
Some of his changes were quite radical, and reflected the pronunciation of various words. For example, “is” became “iz,” “tongue” became “tung,” and “women” became “wimmen” (Noah Webster Gets a Website). Many of the words that he changed to reflect phonological reality did not stick, as can be seen with the examples above. He also added many distinctive American words to the official lexicon, including skunk, squash, hickory, chowder and lengthy (Brett Website).
His changes were not without their critics. One critic particularly hated the word “lengthy” and pondered angrily if the next edition would allow words such as “strengthy.” Webster defended his dictionary by reflecting on its descriptive tone. He recognized that language change is inevitable, saying, “The process of a living language is like the motion of a broad river which flows with a slow, silent, irresistible current.” (Noah Webster Gets a Website).
His dictionary was not complete, and in 1828 he published it again in its final form, the American Dictionary of the English Language (Millward 305). He removed many of his more radical changes, including those listed above, but made many other changes. He changed the spelling of many closed morphemes from the original British in order to create a look that was distinctively American. Among the changes:
-our became -or as in honour/honor
-re became -er as in theatre/theater
-que became -ck or –k as in cheque/check, masque/mask
-ck became -c as in traffick/traffic
-ise became -ize as in Americanise/Americanize
In addition, the phoneme [s] that was spelled /c/ was, for the most part, spelled /s/ by Webster in order to simplify matters, as in defence/defense (Webster, Noah Encarta).
The dictionary included 5000 words that had never appeared before in any other dictionary (Webster, Noah Encarta), for a grand total of 70,000 words, more than any dictionary that had come before it (Millward 305). It also, unlike previous dictionaries, was a comprehensive dictionary, including many technical and scientific words rather than just words from literature. His American Dictionary was the first to list word senses in the chronological order in which they first appeared in the English language. He also completed his extensive lexicon by including pronunciation and grammar rules (Webster, Noah Encarta).
The result of this compilation was the first attempt to describe how the American English dialect was spoken, and was more comprehensive than any dictionary that had come before it, American or British. It was unique in that it attempted to describe actual usage of words and syntax, rather than trying to dictate how the language should be spoken. Finally, it served to standardize spelling throughout the new nation with a distinctive American twist. Without the contributions of Noah Webster, the American language might look very different than it does today.
Bett, Dr. Steve T. Home page. Noah Webster – a short biography. .
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Noah Webster Gets a Web Site. 23 Sept. 1997. .
Noah Webster’s “Blue-Backed Speller”. Blackwell Museum. 1995.
Noah Webster’s Original American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828.
Common Law by LEXREX. 1998. .
A Short Summary of Noah Webster’s Life. Noah Webster House. Feb. 1996.
“Webster, Noah.” Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Microsoft.