Noah Webster (1758 – 1843)
As Winston Churchill once said, Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language. The man who made it his life’s work to ensure this was so was the Connecticut born descendent of a leader of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, Noah Webster. He made a significant contribution to the development of the nascent country that was the United States.
Webster was adamant that not only should American children learn from text books produced in the country and reflecting American thought and philosophy rather than using those imported from England but that it should have its own language. As he wrote, “Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.” The first step in this audacious plan was his publication in 1806 of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language which was the first truly American dictionary.
But Noah didn’t stop there – he had bigger fish to fry – and started work on a more comprehensive dictionary which would change the face of English as it was written in America for good. In the course of his work he learned an astonishing 26 languages, ranging from Anglo-Saxon to Sanskrit, the better to understand the origins of words. When it was published in 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language contained some 70,000 entries, 12,000 of which had never appeared in dictionaries before. Naturally, some of these new words were particular and peculiar to life in the States, such as skunk, hickory and chowder. Although Webster’s dictionary was critically acclaimed and marked a new standard in lexicography, it only sold 2,500 copies, forcing him to mortgage his home to raise the funds for a second edition and ensuring that he was in debt for the rest of his life.
What was truly revolutionary about Webster’s approach to lexicography was his determination to simplify some of the features of the English language, particularly in relation to spelling conventions which make English so tricky to learn. In particular, he eliminated many of the silent letters that peppered conventional English spelling. So the ending –our as in honour was simplified to –or as in honor and words which ended in ck shed their k. He also preferred more phonetic or simplified spellings so plough became plow and words ending in –re such as centre had their endings reversed to –er as in center.
It would be wrong to conclude that Webster invented these spellings – in fact, he chose existing variations – but was the first to adopt a rigid and concerted approach to establishing a spelling convention based on simplicity, analogy and etymology. Some of his suggestions fell on stony ground and so tung for tongue, wimmen for women and iland for island were consigned to the dustbin of history.
Another of Webster’s major contributions was establishing the letters j and v, which had hitherto languished as variants of i and u, as letters in their own right and so they are today, much to Benjamin Franklin’s chagrin – he had advocated getting rid of c, w, y and j entirely.
The second edition of Webster’s dictionary came out in 1840 and he died in 1843 shortly after revising an Appendix to the lexicon. The rights to his magnum opus were acquired that year by publishers, George and Charles Merriam, and his name lives on in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.