Noah Webster, American identity, and the simplified spelling movement
Have you ever wondered why Americans use the spellings honor, neighbor, valor, while the British use honour, neighbour, valour? Has a computer spellchecker or human copy-editor ever stopped your wingèd prose as it travelled (traveled) up through the clouds of Parnassus and subjected it to a tedious extra round of labour (labor), changing cheque to check, theatre to theater, and gaol to jail (or the other way around)?
You can lay the blame for this offence (offense) on Noah Webster, an American lexicologist of the 18th and 19th centuries who wrote and published the first American dictionary. Webster advocated far-reaching reforms in written American English, saying: ‘Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government.’ Not all of his dreams for American English took hold, but enough of them did to make the first rip in a tradition that eventually tore apart – to become, in the quip of George Bernard Shaw, ‘two nations divided by a common language.’
Webster published his first dictionary, titled A Dictionary of the English Language Compiled for the Use of Common Schools, in the U.S., in 1806. In the years leading up to this work, Webster had been publishing books and treatises that argued Americans should ‘simplify’ their spelling by matching letters more closely with phonemes: for example, by removing silent letters, removing double letters, and replacing the soft ‘c’ with an ‘s’. Webster reasoned that simplifying spelling would ease schooling for young people, discourage variant dialects among their elders, allow foreigners to acquire the language more easily, and give American printers a boost in the marketplace, since every British text would have to be reprinted for American readers.
He also argued that simplified spelling would restore the language to the purity of its Anglo-Saxon past, before the ‘princes’ who came to Britain with the Norman invasion imposed foreign rule and, with it, foreign spellings:
Thus the present orthography of leather, feather, weather, stead, wealth, mould, son, ton, wonder, worship, thirst, &c. is corrupt; having been vitiated during the dark ages of English literature, under the Norman princes. The true orthography from the first Saxon writings to the 12th century, was lether, fether, wether, sted or stede, welga, mold, suna, tunna, wundor, wurthscipe, thurst.
As the historians Michael Kramer and Abraham Tauber argue, Webster thereby aligned excess with monarchy and simplicity with equality and thus American identity. (Their work also furnishes the other details in this post.)
In 1789, Webster laid out in detail the terms of his proposed spelling reforms in “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicability of Reforming the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation.” Americans should omit needless letters: bread, built, friend, head, and meant would become bred, bilt, frend, hed, and ment. They should commit to just one letter in any phoneme that wasn’t a diphthong: grieve would become greev, mean become meen, near become neer, and speak become speek. The they should swap the letter ‘c’, in many cases, for ‘s’ or ‘k’, and ‘gh’ for ‘f’, among similar transformations: daughter would become dawter, laugh become laf, plough become plow, and character become karacter. And they should change anything that looked too French: chaise, chevalier, machine, and oblique would become shaze, shevalier, masheen, and obleek.
Webster’s contemporaries gave him so much grief (greef?) over these proposals that, by the time he assembled his 1806 dictionary, he had abandoned many of his specific suggestions. Still, Webster’s dictionary included a lot of words whose spelling was reformed according to his ideas: altho, candor, center, crum, determin, economy, error, fashon, favor, fether, frolic, honor, iland, jail, labor, plow, soop, theater, tho, tune, and wagon, among many others. His later dictionaries were still more conservative and changed some of these spellings to cohere with British practice. But some of his new spellings persisted – not only in his later dictionaries, but in American practice at large. (Why honor and theater made the cut while iland and fether did not is a matter for debate.)
Today, linguists have amassed piles of evidence to show that the idea of reforming spelling in the English language by connecting letters absolutely to phonemes is silly and unworkable. Even in Webster’s time, many onlookers considered spelling reform to be ridiculous. Most efforts to implement it didn’t work, even when powerful institutions were involved. (For instance, in New York, Governor Theodore Roosevelt asked the state government to adopt in official documents a system of reformed spelling that an institution called the Simplified Spelling Board had developed; public ridicule soon made him abandon the plan.) Still, the hard work and dedication of one lone crank in Connecticut managed to have a lasting effect on the writing of a nation. It’s enough to give hope to all of us with an opinion about language and a dream. (Here’s mine: I think the word carillon should be pronounced carry-on.) And life without dreams would truly be a matter for greef.