Posted by: lcm | August 1, 2011

Webster’s Third is 50, but…

Webster’s Third is turning 50 this year.

But that’s not what this post is about. After a satisfying half hour looking up swear words in my copy of the nearly 14-pound delight that is the original 1961 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, my plan was to write about its publication, the controversy that immediately followed, and the awesomeness of the many delightful swear words included in it. I even made a sweet collage of some of the headlines its release generated:

But then I started thinking about Noah Webster and what he might have thought of W3, as the cool kids call it (because you can’t get the cool kids to shut up about lexicography), and especially what he might have thought about the over-the-top reactions of many reviewers. And before I knew it, I found myself sidetracked once again (yes, this happens to me a lot) by his Dissertations on the English Language (1789).

(If you really want to read about Webster’s Third, I refer you to David Skinner’s excellent and enjoyable article on the topic.)

I have spent a lot of time with Noah Webster over the past year, or I guess I should say I have spent a lot of time with Dissertations. I’ve been working on a research project on the topic of American English and its development, specifically in the context of concurrently developing ideologies about standardness and about American identity. The project involves analysis of literary texts and the ways that they represent spoken American English and analysis of metalinguistic commentary (i.e. talking about talking) circulating in the late eighteenth century in relation to the topic of American independence. I was thinking to take a break from all that for this post, but as you’ll see, I’ve utterly failed to do so. So here we go.

A newspaper editor, teacher, author of educational books, and lexicographer by profession, Noah Webster (1758-1843) was not a politician, but he came of age amidst revolution and actively supported the movement toward American independence through the publication of political pamphlets, essays, and editorials. And like several of his contemporaries, he believed that the establishment of a distinctly American English was a necessary act of American self-determination and national identity and therefore a critical step towards establishing an independent, unified nation. (Note to students: See? Everything really is about linguistics.)

In Dissertations on the English Language, Webster argues that an original cultural identity – including an original linguistic identity – had to be part of what would constitute independence for the new republic. “As an independent nation,” he maintains, “our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government” (20).

Later in the book, he makes the case that a “national language is a band of national union” (Webster’s italics), an “engine [that] should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character” (397-8).

He concludes (again italicizing): “Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language, as well as a national government” (406).

But there was a bit of a problem with this plan. You can probably see what it was. The native language of Webster and his fellow patriots, and therefore the best option for the “national language” they advocated, was of course none other than taxation-without-representation, red-coated English itself, the language of their former overlords. That was of course terribly inconvenient.

But these guys were nothing if not pragmatic. And so what turned out to be the most expedient route to a national language was to find ways to distinguish American English from its British antecedents. Webster’s attempts to distinguish American English included spelling reform (although his approach was pretty conservative compared to some other proposals that have been tossed around over the centuries) and exhortations that Americans consider adopting a uniform standard for American English because of “the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments”:

[T]here are . . . important reasons, why the language of this country should be reduced to such fixed principles, as may give its pronunciation and construction all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving. . . . The body of the people, governed by habit, will still retain their respective peculiarities of speaking; and for want of schools and proper books, fall into many inaccuracies, which, incorporating with the language of the state where they live, may imperceptibly corrupt the national language. Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books, can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue. (18-19)

Of course, any such deliberate action was completely unnecessary. (I am choosing to ignore the adorable idea that there has ever been any “purity” to preserve in any version of English, or in any other language, for that matter.) The views and advocacy of Webster and others were unlikely to have had any real impact on the ways that early Americans – and, consequently, their descendants – actually spoke. American divergence from British English was inevitable for other reasons, namely geographic. You put that many miles between speakers of a common language, and differential language change is what you get. But those Revolutionary guys apparently didn’t know then that that’s how it works. (This guy helped put American English on the map — literally — but that wasn’t until the 20th century.)

But the institutionalization of a prestige variety or preferred standard for English in the U.S. is another story, in that its development was anything but natural. It was, rather, the result of cultural discourses that privileged the language varieties of powerful speakers. In other words, it was not a linguistic process but an ideological one. You can see some of the early inklings of that process in Webster’s Dissertations, including in the excerpts above. The developing language ideologies given voice in his writings, along with those of other independence activists who engaged the topic of language, were very much in play in the move toward standardization in American English. But that’s a topic for another day.


As always, the usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

The photo of Noah Webster is in the public domain, although I colorized it because Noah needed some zazz.

The collage of headlines is my original work and may be used only by permission.


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