Noah Webster, America's word master.
Now we go online and check on Google. We should be grateful for changes that make things easier, but we should not forget the past, especially the people and their ideas that helped our country become great. Noah Webster is one of those pioneers who should never be forgotten. As one of his biographers claimed: "He believed fervently in the developing cultural independence of the United States, a chief part of which was to be a distinctive American language with its own idiom, pronunciation, and style."
Webster was born in 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut. His parents soon realized that he was a gifted child and were determined that he would get a good education. He was admitted to Yale when he was sixteen years old and graduated in 1778. He then began to study law and also began teaching school to pay for his education. He was admitted to the bar and also gained an MA degree in 1781; he received the latter from Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class.
Noah was always interested in education. He also loved children and believed that they should receive the best education possible. He was also a great patriot, and he was convinced that it was through education that Americans would come to love their country the way he did. To Webster it soon became clear, chiefly because of this belief, that the textbooks used in schools, mostly developed in England, were inadequate, and he determined to produce his own that reflected American values and beliefs. He stated, at one time, that he had "too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children."
Because of this conviction he wrote his famous dictionary and many other books; he wanted to teach as many children and citizens as possible about language and America. His most famous book is the American Dictionary, but in addition he wrote many others. Before he compiled his dictionary, he wrote and published three separate works dealing with spelling, grammar, and reading, under the title A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Comprising, an Early, Concise, and Systematic Method of Education, Designed for the Use of English Schools in America.
The "Speller' was very popular, selling 200,000 copies a year; more importantly it reflected Webster's view that American education should not be indebted to Great Britain. In Webster's time different sections of the United States spelled, pronounced, and used words differently. Webster firmly believed every American should spell and pronounce and speak the same way, the American way, not the English way. It was the publication of the Dictionary, however, that brought Webster his great fame, and it clearly reflected his feelings about his country and its language. The American language belonged only to the Americans, and it should clearly convey this message.
It took Noah 27 years to compile his dictionary. He began compiling it in 1807, stating that it would be "a dictionary which shall exhibit a far more correct state of the language than any work of this kind," and finished it in 1828. He did all the work himself; his dictionary was unlike other dictionaries that had been compiled by committees or individuals like Samuel Johnson, the famous Englishman who had completed his dictionary with much help from others. He read other dictionaries, various books, and encyclopedias and he learned 26 languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit.
He always wrote his own definitions, keeping in mind that this was an American dictionary for Americans. The dictionary was published in two volumes and had 70,000 words. Webster used American spellings like color instead of the English colour, music instead of musick, center instead of centre, and plow instead of plough. He also added American words like skunk, chowder, Yankee, and squash.
He summed up his reasons for writing his dictionary in the Preface: It is not only important, but, in a degree necessary, that the people of this country, should have an American Dictionary of the English language; for, although the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.... The institutions of this which are new and peculiar, give rise to new terms or to the applications of old terms, unknown to the people of England.... No person in this country will be satisfied with the English definitions of the words congress, senate and assembly, court, & for although these are words used in England, yet they are applied in that country to express ideas which they do not express in that country.
Webster has been quoted countless times; here are three which indicate his attitude towards language, books, and country. 1) Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country. 2) In selecting men for office, let principle be your guide. Regard not the particular sect of denomination of the candidate--look to his character. 3) Language is the expression of ideas, and if the people of one country cannot preserve a identity of ideas they cannot retain an identity of language.
His work served to inspire many American authors. Many believe that Emily Dickinson, the great American poet, made extensive use of Noah Webster's Dictionary. Above all, however, his Dictionary also revealed his main goal in his life and labor: his love of children and his belief that they should receive the best education possible. As a great patriot he was convinced that it was through education that Americans would come to love their country the way he did. Because of his achievement, he should not be regarded, as one of his biographers stated, the forgotten founding father; instead, he should be remembered and admired as one who helped our nation become what it is today.
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major interests are 19th-century literature and drama. He has published and lectured widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors of Dickens Studies Annual. He has published many articles on various subjects in The World & I over the past years.
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|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2017|
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