By Jackson K. ’21
Ever wonder why we Americans describe red and blue as ‘colors,’ while our English friends across the pond would refer to them as ‘colours?’ Or why you can go to the ‘theater’ in the United States, but you go to the ‘theatre’ in England? Well, today we’re going to find out.
In 1783, newly independent Americans were extremely proud of their victory over the British Empire in their seven year struggle for autonomy, and looked to eliminate the remaining aspects of British influence in order create an idea of a truly new and unique national and cultural identity. One of the most widespread aspects of British society which continued in the young nation after the war was, of course, the language. As such, some American nationalists, wanting to break from the ways of their former rulers, suggested that the new republic should change the already existing English language to be more unique. Others pushed for more radical change, such as renaming American English to “Columbian,” or changing the national language entirely to a different language, such as German or Hebrew. The topic was hotly debated in Congress, although by the 1790’s a majority had agreed that English would remain as the primary language, in one form or another. Still, many politicians disagreed on the extent to which the English language would be changed in order to better separate from the customs of England. Finally, in the first years of the 1800’s, a former politician from Connecticut would take up the lead on such a daunting task.
Noah Webster was born on October 16th, 1768 in Hartford, Connecticut. A terrific writer with a passion for law, Webster attended Yale College, where he graduated in 1778. After being unable to find a job in law, Webster decided to turn to writing, publishing a number of educational books and founding a private school. Webster was an avid patriot, and was a staunch supporter of the revolutionary cause during the American Revolutionary War. As such, Webster began to write increasingly political articles and books, supporting the democratic values of the Revolution. Webster was also one of the first abolitionists in the United States, and in 1791 he founded the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery. In 1793, Alexander Hamilton recruited Webster to write for a Federalist newspaper in New York City, where his prolific writing abilities quickly earned him fame for his remarkable political commentaries, essays, and articles. In 1798, he returned to his home state, where he ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives. After serving his two years, Webster turned again to his writing abilities to continue his legacy. Yet, he still wished to help his young nation, and as such committed himself to finalizing a new form of American English. He became convinced that the establishment of a nationalized and unique language in America would help to solidify the unification and true independence of the nation, and stated that, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics.”
Webster began by advocating for changing the pronunciation of the letter ‘z.’ The British pronounce the letter as ‘zed’ and as such he supported a split from these ways and instead pronouncing it as ‘zee.’ This change was enthusiastically introduced by the government, who were still eager to distance themselves from Britain, and thus public schools began to teach the pronunciation of the last letter as ‘zee,’ not ‘zed.’ He also tried to convince public schooling systems to stop teaching other languages entirely, as he felt that by teaching German, French, Latin, and Hebrew to the younger generations, America was only setting itself up for lingual disunity. However, these sentiments were less popular amongst public school officials, and thus this never came to pass. Webster then spent the next several years of his life dedicated to his most influential piece of work: A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Published in 1806, this was the first complete dictionary of American English, and was essentially the groundwork of lingual uniformity in the nation. Finally, 17 years after the United States had become independent, it had an official language: a slightly altered version of English, referred to today as American English. In the dictionary, Webster had made several subtle changes, ensuring that this new form of English was distinguishable enough from British English to be worthy of its own name. He made several changes, including:
- Webster dropped the ‘u’ from “colour” and “honour,” along with other words he described as “a few words of that class” in the introduction of the book.
- He changed the ‘c’ to an ‘s’ in “defence,” “offence,” and “pretence.”
- He substituted ‘s’ to a ‘z’ in “patronise” and a few other words
- He reworked the spelling of “theatre” to “theater.”
- He dropped the second ‘l’ in “travelled” and “cancelled”
- He removed the ‘k’ from the end of “magic” and “logic,” although those changes had already been suggested by other scholars
In addition to all of these successful changes, he made other changes that were less popular, and ultimately reverted to their original spellings, including,
- Taking the last ‘e’ off of “doctrine,” “discipline,” and “medicine.”
- Changing the ‘u’ in “soup” to an ‘o’ (“soop”)
- Changing the spelling of “women” to “wimmen”
Nonetheless, Webster’s changes, even after some of his words had been reverted, were undoubtedly bold and most definitely constituted an entirely new form of English to be named. Though many were skeptical at first, Webster was able to convince most of his doubters. He continued to support the idea that the difference with British English would help to encourage national unification and a more distinct culture. Additionally, he also brought up the somewhat inconsequential fact that he mostly reduced the amount of letter in the modified words, and that thus he was saving money for printers, who would have to print less. Either way, Webster’s new dictionary was ultimately able to win over America, and was recognized as legitimate. After this first iteration, Webster continued to work on refining American English, and in 1826 he published an additional dictionary, which elaborated on many of his past modifications and made it more comprehensive. Even after this, however, Webster continued to be an influential part of the development American English, as he played a role in the Copyright Act of 1831, the first major revision on United States copyright laws. After this, Webster worked on a second dictionary, although he passed away before he could complete it in 1843. After his death, the rights to his unfinished work went to George and Charles Merriam. The pair went on to use many of the late Webster’s works to help continue to develop the ever changing American English, and eventually changed the name of their company dictionary to Merriam-Webster, giving credit to the late linguistic mastermind of Noah Webster. The company still exists to this day, continuing the legacy of American English which Webster single-handedly created way back in 1806.
So, the next time you’re standing by a printer, waiting for it to work, you can hold your head high knowing that everytime you print a page with a word that was reduced by Webster in 1806, you’re saving roughly a thousandth of a cent on ink that our old rulers on the other side of the Atlantic have to pay for.