Thursday, October 16, 2008

Happy Birthday, Noah Webster

Today is the 250th anniversary of Noah Webster's birth. Webster's influence on our English and on our government has touched us all. (Do you spell the word "honour" or "honor"? "Theatre" or "theater"? "Gaol" or "jail"?) He was a maverick in his time. Check out Dennis Baron's blog The Web of Language, where he discusses America's first language patriot.
Especially in New England there are celebrations today. From Yale comes this summary of his work:

West Hartford native and Yale alumnus (B.A., 1778; M.A., 1781; and Honorary LL.D., 1823), Webster is most commonly known for his “American Dictionary of the English Language” (first published, 1828), but he was also a versatile intellectual and influential reformer whose diverse pursuits ran from the study of infectious diseases and climatology to revising the King James translation of the Bible. He introduced and campaigned for the adoption of copyright laws, established and edited a New York newspaper, and was a founder of Amherst College. An ardent patriot, and friend of George Washington, Webster credited his 1785 tract “Sketches of American Policy” as paving the way for the Constitution.

It was, though, his shaping and codifying the vernacular language of the United States that won him immortality. Webster’s scholarship was goaded by the belief that, in the words of his biographer Harlow Unger, “national unity depended on linguistic unity, with all Americans speaking a single common language.” As a pioneering lexicographer, Webster not only made such quintessentially New World words as “skunk,” “hickory,” “raccoon,” “butternut squash,” and “chowder” part of the English language, he also liberated American spellers from the British “u” in “colour,” the French “re” of “centre,” and the redundant “k” of “musick.”

Some four decades before Webster produced the dictionary, he had already made his mark as a pedagogue in classrooms across the new nation with the “American Spelling Book” – known to the generations of school children who learned grammar, usage and correct orthography from its pages as the “blue-backed speller.”


Mr. Verb said...

Thanks! Of course, I've been feeling bad all week that I forgot to post about Fred Cassidy Day last week. (And didn't even have a chance to raise a glass of Jamacian rum to his memory.)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Some of his ideas were way before their time:

A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf for laugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic, arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation. Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.

Ellen K. said...

The difficulty with spelling reform is pronunciation variation. I can agree with most of The Ridger, FCD's suggestions, but I pronounce tour as "tor" not "toor".

Having a (mostly) unified spelling for English helps in communication across the English speaking world. Especially now in the digital age.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Hey, those aren't my suggestions. They're Noah's. And if he'd had his way, we'd all sound alike, too.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Another problem is, which word would "peek" mean? We've got enough homonyms now!