Noah Webster at 250

Dennis Baron debaron at
Wed Oct 15 14:01:23 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

Noah Webster at 250: a visionary or a crackpot? After all, he brought  
us ax and plow, but also deef and bridegoom

Noah Webster, America's first language patriot, was born Oct. 16,  
1758. He turns 250 today (well, o.k., tomorrow, depending on when you  
get this email).

A lawyer and schoolmaster who went to Yale and fought in the  
Revolutionary War, Webster bought into the Enlightenment view that  
connected language with nation, and urged the newly-independent  
America to adopt its own language, a Federal English that was  
independent of the speech of its former masters.

Calling for a linguistic revolution to complement the recent political  
one, Webster wrote, "A national language is a band of national union.  
Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country  
national." And he urged, "NOW is the time, and this the country, in  
which we may expect changes favorable to language . . . . Let us then  
seize the present moment, and establish a nationallanguage, as well as  
a national government."

. . .

Webster merged his linguistic patriotism with his need to make a  
living. Arguing that a newly-independent America shouldn't import its  
schoolbooks from England, he began printing domestic spellers and  
grammars, lobbying Congress to give his textbooks a federal seal of  
approval. Webster apparently failed to back up these requests with  
under-the-table campaign contributions, but even without a  
Congressional endorsement, his blue-backed spellers managed to become  
staples in America's classrooms for decades.

Although his ideas about the one best way to spell changed over time,  
Webster's American spelling generally meant dropping some final e's  
and making English writing a little more phonetic. He wroteax instead  
of axe, gray for grey, and plow, not plough. He also favored what  
eventually became an American preference for –er instead of the  
British  –re; and instead of centre and honour. Even so,Americans  
still seem divided over theater and theatre, and we still see the  
occasional upscale shopping centre. Webster successfully bet on  jail,  
mask, public and traveled instead of the Britishgaol, masque, publick,  
and travelled, and American dictionaries use those forms today.

. . .

find out more about Noah Webster -- read the whole post: at the Web of  

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

read the Web of Language:

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