A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
The shrine room adjacent to the Language Lounge is small and accommodates only a modest devotional area, but the Loungeurs compensate in ardor for what we may lack in facilities: hardly a day goes by that we do not advert to our ancestors in spirit, who are depicted in images in this sanctum. Front and center amid the coterie of revered ones is Mr. Noah Webster. This year, 2006, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and we cannot let the bicentenary pass with noting the remarkable achievements of this man who, more than any other early American, influenced the direction and force of American English. By doing that, he had a great influence on the way that English looks to people around the world who read, write, study, and speak it today. We beg the indulgence of our readers abroad for this small look backward.
A few glances into the Visual Thesaurus gives us some idea of what modern English owes to this fellow. Have a look at hickory, opossum, skunk, or succotash. These words are all seamlessly integrated into the fabric of modern English today. Some of them have even sprouted meanings and senses distinct from their beginnings. Historically, however, they have two things in common: 1) they are all loanwords from Native American languages, and 2) they all became official English for the first time in Webster's 1806 dictionary.
You would expect that the premier lexicographer in a new country, as the US then was, to note the emergence of words like these that arose from local circumstances, but Noah's ear to the ground was fine-tuned for other usages as well: his 1806 work defines many English words for the first time in a dictionary, even though they had been in general or dialectal circulation for decades, or in some cases, even centuries. Spry, for example, had been noted in English and Scottish dialects before, but did not appear in any dictionary. Emphasize, a back-formation from the much earlier emphasis, appears for the first time in the 1806 dictionary, and has no earlier citations than this in the OED. Copyrighted as a verb-derived adjective is also a first-time Websterism, and somewhat ironically so: during his lifetime Webster forfeited a considerable income stream because of lax copyright laws, and the many dictionaries in print today that use his name with no legitimate claim to it do so because his name and work were not adequately protected by copyright and trademark.
Webster's achievements as a lexicographer are secured by his work which lives on in the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries published today. His much greater influence on English, however, is evident to every person who reads or writes American English - or, perhaps, who struggles with the orthography of intermediate dialects like Canadian and Australian: Webster is primarily responsible for the spelling reforms in American English that for most people distinguish it from British English. This is why in the VT, which accommodates all main spelling variants in English, you will always see colour lurking along side color, instal hanging out with install, jewellery with jewelry, licence with license, and meagre with meager. In fact Noah Webster was far more radical in his aims for English spelling reform than is suggested by the differences that exist between British and American today: if he'd gotten his way, we would write hav instead of have, tung instead of tongue, and spunge instead of sponge. Sensible guy, huh? Though nothing in his life suggests that Webster had any feminist leanings, we can give him a modest protofeminist credential for having proposed that women be spelled wimmen: the way, after all, that everyone pronounces it, and the way that was at one time proposed by some feminists as a way of distancing the word from its etymological connection with "womb-man."
Like many others whose works do follow them so admirably, Noah Webster was a visionary. Many accounts of his life depict him as a cranky fellow and some of his writings seem unusually critical, especially of British English and its adherents' claims to its superiority. It's likely that he simply got exasperated from people not listening to him! Consider his rather prescient, turn-of-the-19th century statement:
"In each of the countries peopled by Englishmen, a distinct dialect of the language will gradually be formed; the principal of which will be that of the United States. In 50 years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language, and in 130 years, by more people than any other language on the globe, not excepting the Chinese."
Few of his contemporaries would have credited this statement, but it has proven largely true: American English is the dominant variety of the language in the world today; and English, largely influenced by the American dialect, is in fact spoken by more people in the world today than Chinese - at least during the hours when most of the Chinese are sleeping, and before very long, probably even while they're awake.
After the appearance of the 1806 dictionary, Webster devoted a good part of the rest of his life to writing the work that made his name the imprimatur for dictionaries in the United States: An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828. This dictionary, which still has an avid following (see below), set the standard for scholarship and precision in English lexicography at the time; a remarkable number of Webster's definitions remain quite usable today.
H.L. Mencken's monumental work The American Language is the source of the quote in this month's Language Lounge blurb. An edition of it is available online; here's are a couple of links to the chapter on spelling (click the "next" button to read on). From these pages you can also link upwards to the whole of Mencken's work (which is highly recommended).
http://www.bartleby.com/185/31.html (beginning of the spelling chapter)
http://www.bartleby.com/185/32.html (discussion on the influence of Webster)
Webster's 1828 dictionary, as noted, still enjoys an avid following today, primarily because of its Christian worldview and its wealth of Biblical quotations. It is searchable and browsable online in a fully concordanced version at: http://www.cbtministries.org/resources/webster1828.htm
Finally, you can read about Merriam-Webster's bicentenary (or perhaps you say bicentennial) celebration of the 1806 dictionary at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/webster-reform.htm