April 29, 2002


USA, republic of letters : Communication in the newly United States (a review of A IS FOR AMERICAN : Letters and other characters in the newly United States by Jill Lepore) (Hugh Kenner, 4/25/02, Times Literary Supplement)
Americans still say "Look it up in Webster", alluding to a man who devoted his long life (1758-1843) to reorganizing the "English" people spoke and wrote in a country that had just severed its ties with England. There hadbeen other proposals for a national language, for instance Hebrew, both to distance Yanks from Britain and to signal them as a chosen people. French and Greek were also considered. But what Noah Webster proposed was simply to teach all Americans to spell and speak alike, yet differently in detail from the people of England. The result would be an "American language, to become over the years as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or from one another".

But American regional pronunciations differed, hence Virginian contempt for the New Englanders who "talked funny". That had to be rendered uniform. And pronunciation, Webster thought, tended to follow spelling. So the key to unifying America's future would be a Spelling Book. Webster went to work on that.

And it sold, and sold, and sold. Every household, it seemed, required one. On the eve of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederacy, declaring how "Above all other people we are one", added that "above all books which have united us in the bond of common language, I place the good old spelling-book of Noah Webster."

It was after 1828 that "looking it up in Webster" came into vogue. In that year Webster published his monumental American Dictionary of the English Language , in which the entry for "Barbarous" commences, "Uncivilized; savage, unlettered . . .". Two Webster books therefore, their themes Spelling and Meaning. So American kids started their education poring over long lists of words, and the Spelling-Bee is still an American custom. Then, after mastering many hundreds of disconnected words, kids are ready to learn to read. That's when they graduate from the Speller to the Dictionary.

There's something to be said for a community in which people all speak the same language and educate their kids from the same books. Bring back the McGuffey Reader. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2002 7:12 PM
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