In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language.
 —Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806

The National Museum of Language near Washington, D.C. is putting together an exhibit on the role of the War of 1812 in the development of American English, as we approach that war's bicentennial (or bicentenary, as they still say on the other side).  In the Lounge we've been exploring ideas with the museum, and this month we wanted to share some of our findings.

To set the scene on a war whose name doesn't give many mnemonic clues: the United States was quite newly fledged as a country in 1812, and consisted of only 18 states: the 13 original colonies, plus Vermont and four states that were then considered on the western frontier: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Louisiana. Relations with Great Britain were not at all settled in the wake of the revolutionary war that had ended about 30 years earlier, and British meddling in US affairs was rife. The War of 1812 — begun officially on June 18th when the US declared war on Britain —  is sometimes dubbed the "second war of independence," in which the US established itself unequivocally as a sovereign power among its peers. But how was English faring during this time?

Events of the day aside, the two major dialects of English had begun their divergence long before — nearly 200 years earlier, with the beginning of continuous settlement of North America by English speakers. The growing differences in the dialects had come to the notice of some speakers on both sides of the Atlantic by the early 19th century, and the first prominent, distinctly American writers — Washington Irving (1783-1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) — had come to the favorable notice of Europeans.

However, the prevailing opinion about American English from the source that regarded itself as authoritative — namely, British intellectuals — was not so favorable. The ink was barely dry on the Declaration of Independence before British pundits were slamming American English at every opportunity (as documented by H. L. Mencken in several pages that begin here). A writer in the Monthly Mirror of 1808 lamented "the corruptions and barbarities which are hourly obtaining in the speech of our trans-atlantic colonies." Authors of such comments were the very people that Noah Webster, in 1789, had already denounced, when he wrote of England: "the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline."

These slings and arrows were exchanged at the high end of the transatlantic discourse of the time. At the low end — the language of the American or Briton on the street — there was probably little awareness of or concern for the divergence of the dialects, and to most speakers the language was still just English. Indeed, the first attestation of the term American English comes only in 1805 (according to Merriam-Webster) or 1806 (according to the OED, whose first citation is from Noah Webster himself, and appears above).

A look at the American English of 1812 finds it looking not that much different from the British English that we know today — at least with regard to spelling. Here, for example, is an excerpt from an 1812 act from the Maryland legislature, authorizing the formation of a militia to support the war effort. Note the spellings authorised and defence:


Webster's American Spelling Book (an excerpt is reproduced below) was already in print at this time and widely circulated, but he started out conservatively with the spelling reforms that are now chiefly associated with him, and his first dictionary, whose preface we quote at the top, preserved most traditional spellings. To the degree that the average American thought about it in 1812, English was the language that came to America from England, and anything authoritative about the language, whether in the form of books or pronouncements, probably came from the same place — the country of which many Americans had been subjects until recently. Webster, on the other hand, was clearly thinking along other lines:


Aside from the unmistakable self-promotional aspects, we can see in Webster's words here a clear intention to distinguish American English from its parent, and he did indeed spend the rest of his life pursuing that mission, and plowing the considerable profits from his spelling book into his one-man dictionary mission.

In the same year that the US began its new war with Britain, Webster moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts to begin his life's chief work: his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.  He advertised his undertaking in an attempt to win subscribers and was largely met with scorn. Even American intellectuals were aghast that he should question the authority of Samuel Johnson, whose monumental dictionary was then about 50 years old. All educated opinion thought that Webster was misguided in the notion of immortalizing an idiom that "sprang from the mouths of the illiterate," rather than from the canon of English literature.

By the war's end — officially in 1815 — Webster's game-changing dictionary was still an undertaking barely begun. The number of speakers of American English had not increased significantly during this time (there was little immigration because of the war), but the awareness of and identity with American English had gained the foothold that it didn't quite achieve during the revolutionary war. The United States achieved a limited military victory, but its real victory in this war was psychological: they had won the war this time with everyone on board — not with the resistance of loyalists, who had made up about 20% of the population in the earlier war — and the consensus now was that being an American and talking like an American was a good thing.

Merriam-Webster's contemporary collegiate dictionary records about 500 new words that entered the language between 1812 and 1815. Only one seems to be a direct result of the war — the transitive use of the verb conscript, first cited in the Connecticut Courant in 1813. The Online Etymology Dictionary, without laying out the paper trail, says that the idiom "eat crow" dates from the War of 1812. Perhaps the greatest lexical victor of the war was the much older word spangled, which got promoted to a plush job that it will keep forever. Francis Scott Key, unavoidably detained on a ship in Chesapeake Bay on a September night in 1814 and compelled to watch the bombardment of Fort McHenry by Royal Navy ships, was moved to write the words that eventually became the national anthem.  The epithet "star-spangled," interestingly, goes back to the 16th century but never seems to have been applied to anything but the sky until Key's moment of inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Tuesday December 1st 2009, 6:55 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)Top 10 Commenter
If “Merriam-Webster's contemporary collegiate dictionary records about 500 new words that entered the language between 1812 and 1815” would it be possible to have the same dictionary introduce, rather than record only, a new word that would replace “he or she”? Is there any way for linguists to invent and announce a new word to the world that would replace “he or she” and convince everyone to use the new word?
Nothing annoys me more (and I have already posted this comment in relation to annoying words) than hearing or reading “he or she”, and I recall that I proposed once in one of my essays the form “s/he” to replace “he or she” (and similarly, I found a form to replace “his or her”, something I do not recall at the moment). Certainly I have noticed that after “he or she” began to be widely used, some very sensitive authors, especially men authors, with a deep love for language, at least in my opinion, began to use she, instead of the newly adopted “he or she” or the usual “he” (which sometimes, when the use of “he” would have been more appropriate, in their writings, than the use of “she”, made me smile, as in that particular context it would have been impossible for me not to see their subtle irony). And saying this I can only hope that our linguists will have mercy on us and think about some pleasant sounds to replace the very unpleasant sounding (at least to my ears) “he or she”. The use of “he or she” annoys me so much that I’m thinking to replace it with “s/he” and explain it with a small note; of course this might work when used in writing; however, when spoken, “s slash he” is no better than “he or she”, perhaps even worse, so we definitely need the help of linguists; could it be an absolutely new beautifully sounding word?
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 8:13 AM
Comment by: Susan F. (Ashburn, VA)
I find myself smiling at Antonia D.'s comment, because I share the dislike of "he or she" or even "s/he", which I've also used. This is the one place in our otherwise gender-neutral language (e.g., we don't have to stop to figure out if "cat" or "table" is masculine or feminine as in some other languages), where we falter. A gender neutral word that means "he or she" would be wonderful. In the meantime, when writing, I try to convert he/she into the plural form: they, them, their. It works, but it requires me to switch mid-stream, so to speak, and check back to make sure everything else in the sentence aligns, grammatically, with the plural.
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Virginia F. (Geneva Switzerland)
"In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language.
—Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806"

Should we take this to mean that English (as opposed to American-English)was considered by Webster as a dialect, together with all the rich local dialects in England, Scottish English, Irish English, Indian English, Carribean English etc.? It is still noticeable today, so long afterwards, that American-English was principally influenced by the strong and tortuous accent of the Irish immigrants of the time. (There is an Irish newsreader on BBC World News who is quite incomprehensible to many of my English speaking friends here in Switzerland.) Perhaps Irish English would be a truer linguistic denomination than American-English.
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Antonia D's in trouble, here. Languages acquire new pronouns only with extreme difficulty (if indeed at all). English has managed to lose one (though many people still feel its loss), but no effort, no matter how strong, has managed to foist "hi" or "heesh" or anything else on a people who much prefer to use "they" without worrying whether the antecedent is plural or not. We don't worry about that with other pronouns (like "everyone"), so why the angst over "they"?

I'm fascinated that Webster wrote "an uniformity". Was it pronounced with the jot (that is, yooniformity, or ooniformity?)?
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
I am curious about the usage of the "f" form (resembling an "f") for "s" in the excerpt from Webster. I can't analyse where or why he uses one or the other forms. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the voiced [z] or unvoiced [s] form. could someone comment on this?
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Jeffrey D. (Dallas, TX)
Interesting, the lofty notion of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. I would imagine this idea seldom occurred in a Western culture, particularly where Romance languages are spoken, prior to the middle of the last century. Perhaps in Asian languages where there was little use for personal pronouns prior to around the same time.
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
For more on the "pronoun problem" in English, see Margaret Hundley Parker's Teachers at Work column from last April. I've also written on the topic over on OUPblog.
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jacquline M: for the s that looks like an f, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_s
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 1:45 PM
Comment by: Cynthia
I loved this article. When I read Webster's words: ". . to promote the interest, literature and harmony of The United States - is the most ardent wish of the author", it gave me chills. We need to put more emphasis on our own history in the classroom. This is a fine example of how Americans were eager to become a true nation of people united by common causes.
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 10:16 PM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
I only wish that Australian authorities would place the same emphasis on the importance of the retention of history in our educational ciriculum.
Recently I have become increasingly irritated by the American English term"going forward" when referring to the future. May I use "going backwards " when referring to yefterday?
Wednesday December 2nd 2009, 4:42 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)Top 10 Commenter
I’d like to answer to Susan F. and Karen D., out of courtesy, also because I’d like to clarify what I said before.

Part I

What about using the following replacements?

“he or she” - heesh
“him or her” - heemsh
“his or hers”) – heersh

And before saying what follows, I want to say that I have nothing against “he”, “him”, and “his” being used as before the pronoun revolution. I’ve been called “Antonio” instead of “Antonia” in many business letters I received (and never complained), and I have laughed with all my heart (and I still laugh when I recall those surprised faces) when those sending me the letters related to the business I was in at the time, finally met me and were surprised to see that “Antonio” was actually a woman. So Karen D. is right in saying (though she refers to language only) that novelty of any kind is acquired with extreme difficulty. Never the less it is possible. And, no, I do not think that I am in trouble, when it comes to intelligent people, as I like to think that many intelligent ways could be found.
Now coming back to my proposal of the new words:
I think that in order to successfully replace “he or she”, “him or her”, and “his or hers” with three new gender neutral words, one has to find three words that have similar sounds to the three expressions themselves. In this way the memory would not be stretched (it is easier to connect “he or she” with heesh, than with thon). For example, the sounds of thon would rather trigger in my mind words such as thunder, thong, thongs, even the word thou, which would bring in mind the second person rather than the third, and this would not be very helpful to fix the new word in my memory (and as a consequence I would, especially in a conversational context, use something I already know well, instead of making a pause to think which new form I am to use for possessive, etc.). Similarly for “him or her”, an expression containing “m”, a consonant the other two expressions do not incorporate would make heemsh easy to connect to “him or her” and also to the idea of having it used when the accusative form is required. The same goes for “his or hers”, an expression containing “r”, a consonant the first expression does not contain, and is not emphasized within the second, where “m” is the unique consonant, as it is not to be found within the first and the third expressions. Consequently I think that I would very much like to hear heesh, heemsh, and heersh replacing the above named expressions, if “he” cannot be accepted anymore, and “she” is not entirely accepted as its replacement, though I have never found the use of “he” disturbing in any way, as I always understood it as gender neutral form, when the context required such a form. As far as the use of “they”, one needs to change the subject to its plural form, and this might not always be wanted, and to use it incorrectly as a replacement of a singular form would be something I would dislike most.
Wednesday December 2nd 2009, 4:46 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)Top 10 Commenter
I’d like to answer to Susan F. and Karen D., out of courtesy, also because I’d like to clarify what I said before.

Part II
What is to be noticed about this pronoun problem, however, is the fact that it is a problem of presence and capability: If the person I’m talking about is in front of my eyes, (for example, say that I am in a group of three and I’m saying to one that the other can do this or that, I’ll say: “he can do it” or “she can do it”, depending on whether the person I’m talking about is a man or a woman, and, please notice, this would not be seen as a sign of being not polite, as I would try to convince one party for the benefit of the other) I can see whether is a man or a woman, and consequently I will use he, him, his if a man, or she, her, hers, if a woman. Only when I talk about a person in general in relation to certain capabilities (in a certain role, and any role would do), and I want my interlocutor to understand that I assume that the person having those certain capabilities can be either a woman or a man, then I need to use one of the mentioned expressions, unless I know that the person I’m talking to has already incorporated the idea, into “his or her” (heesh) mind system, that both men and women can have those capabilities, and therefore whatever pronoun I would use would be of no importance. The use of “He” or “She”, related strictly to a man or a woman, at least in my mind, is important to show whatever can pertain strictly to either the notion of man or woman (for example, a woman cannot have a prostate, nor a man can breastfeed a baby). Beyond these bodily natural constraints, I like to think that when it comes to thinking matters, both men and women, by now (we are living in the 21st century) would have come to the conclusion that being at war with each other (the so called war of the sexes) is meaningless and certainly not constructive.
And the fact that some women wanted “he” to be replaced, in my view, shows insecurity about one’s own capabilities.
Saturday December 5th 2009, 3:55 PM
Comment by: Wayne S.
On using "he or she."
What about (s)he?
It is similar to the optional plural, as in "Be sure to bring your book(s) with you.
Monday December 7th 2009, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Meical (Cardiff United Kingdom)
We already have a perfectly good pronoun for the ungendered human individual: one/one/ones, to correspond to he/him/his or she/her/hers.
In this way, one can make ones meaning clear without inventing new words or using phrases like 'he or she'.
Monday December 28th 2009, 7:25 PM
Comment by: Kimberly C. (Alameda, CA)
Personally, I liked Webster's line, "...to produce reciprocal ridicule." ;-)

Very enjoyable article - thanks. I am reminded of a piece I saw awhile back on the further distinguishing of American English - insofar as pronunciation goes - after WWII. The author noted that prior to the war, actors and announcers with higher aspirations tended towards British pronunciations - i.e., "Bet-tah" vs. "bedder" for the word "better," etc. After U.S. support started turning the war around, U.S.ers (sp?) began to view their culture - and their unique pronunciations - as more asset, less liability. The shift in speech habits between, say, early Betty Davis films (Of Human Bondage) and her later work (All About Eve) is remarkable, if incomplete.

Thanks again - looking forward to more of your writing.

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