Within the Detroit metropolitan area, a short drive from gutted buildings and abandoned neighborhoods, one can step into a pre-industrial America, complete with working farms, horse-drawn carriages, and the charming homes of a now-vanished elite. Late in life, Henry Ford carefully refabricated the rural America he had helped to destroy in a place called Greenfield Village. A steam locomotive chugs around the perimeter, and the workshops of Edison and the Wright brothers hint of the world to come, but it remains a place of repose, typified by the 17th-century Cotswold cottage Ford brought from England and reassembled. Yet in one of these houses, an elegant colonial from New Haven, a man dreamt of something far more radical than any of Edison’s inventions: manipulating language in order to erase a people’s memory. His name was Noah Webster.
It may seem unfair to castigate the man who labored for a quarter-century over some 75,000 definitions to create An American Dictionary of the English Language. Less familiar than the other early leaders of the nascent federal government, Webster has nonetheless received the reverence due a secular saint. As is typical in historical houses, each item has been placed to suggest that the old lexicographer could walk in at any time to resume his noble work. A tour guide sings the praises of Saint Webster: To an English-speaking world enfeebled by the irregular spelling of its language, he brought beloved standardization. Others may have laid the political foundations for our republic, but Webster gave it its language, graciously bestowing sovereignty over the written word, so long the privilege of the aristocracy, upon the common people. Through his American Spelling Book (the “Blue-Backed Speller”), which taught five generations of American schoolchildren how to read, he was the proper father of civics, who confidently declared that his reader, devoid of religious writings but enriched by the tracts of Tom Paine and the abolitionists, would replace the Bible as the book from which young Americans would read aloud.
Americans certainly owe Webster a great deal, if for no other reason than he helps us to distinguish between the blockbuster “theater” of the masses, enjoying their panem et circenses, and the highbrow “theatre” of the elite granolagarchy. But Webster, a radical? Why, he was as American as apple pie. Yet this is the man opponents dubbed “an incurable lunatic,” “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” and “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot.”
Scarcely out of college when the Revolutionary War was over, Webster had dreamt the war would “unfetter the shackles” riveted on the human race, including the tyranny of organized religion, traditional education, and ingrained custom. So awe-inspiring would American greatness be that “the glory of ancient Greece and Rome shall dwindle to a point.” Not only did he welcome the French Revolution, he stuck with it long after other Federalists got off the bus, resolutely defending the Reign of Terror.
Yet Webster’s political radicalism was tame compared with his now little-known revolutionary plans for the English language, ideas more in line with 1984 than the spirit of ’76. In the years after the war, Webster went on long speaking tours across the country, spreading a gospel of nationalism and linguistic revolution, and in 1789, he published these ideas in the innocuously titled Dissertations on the English Language. For those who think of Webster as America’s kindly schoolteacher, the Dissertations make truly horrifying reading. The Yankee’s intentions went far beyond merely robbing words like honour of some of their dignity.
Webster believed that the pedantry of Old World aristocrats like Dr. Johnson had corrupted the purity of the language. If America was to be a republic, should not popular usage be the ultimate authority for her language? But Webster had no intention of relinquishing the idea of linguistic authority, for he wanted to dictate how America used English himself.
In the Dissertations, Webster went far beyond the moderate spelling reforms of his popular speller, which he had created merely to keep himself afloat financially. Americans, he declared, should first throw off the unphonetic shackles of the past. He offered bizarre new spellings, ones that look uncannily like cell-phone text messages: “tuf bred,” “dawter’s hed,” “laf or greev,” the “rong frend,” the “blud” of a “shevaleer.” Words were to be spelled exactly as they were pronounced—provided, of course, that the pronunciation was a New England one. Webster had nothing but scorn for what he saw as the inferior morals and literary achievements of his countrymen to the south.
Yet therein lies the problem. Many of the Yankee’s suggestions would have been just as unintuitive to someone from North Carolina as our current, still recognizably British spelling appears to an American child. (Webster censured Southerners for such unforgivable monstrosities as pronouncing the t in virtue as “ch.”) But to a man as radical as Webster, this presented not a problem, but an opportunity. He confessed that his overhaul of spelling was but a means to make every region pronounce each word uniformly. If America were to be a unitary nation, she must eradicate regional differences in speech: “Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national.”
To Webster, spelling reform had never been about making it easier for children to read. It was but one step toward creating a nation that had severed cultural ties with its English past. Radically phonetic spelling might help four-year-olds, or at least those fortunate enough to have been born in Webster’s Connecticut, but it also throws up barriers to communication across time and space. Raised in Southern Indiana, I was only a few hours’ drive from my future wife’s native Michigan, yet even we cannot agree if syrup should be pronounced “surrup” or “seerup,” and when she orders the beverage I call a coke, it sounds to me like “pap.” Both of us can read Webster’s 200-year-old essay with no difficulties, because his proposals were rejected. Yet both of us would struggle to read something written phonetically by many alive today.
Not only was Webster aware his system would sunder Americans from their English past, he relished the thought. Not content with mere spelling changes, he advocated changing the very appearance of letters through diacritical marks and linkages. Two strikingly divergent scripts and spellings would create a need for two different printing impressions, and this is what Noah fervently hoped for. It would “render it, in some measure, necessary that all books should be printed in America,” something he judged to be “an object of vast political consequence.” The present generation, he wistfully remarked, might still content themselves with reading books printed in England, but future generations would be able to do so only with great difficulty. Like the denizens of Orwell’s dystopia, they would be cut off from the old world by an artificial language barrier:
However they may boast of Independence . . . yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent; an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners are still prevalent among the Americans.
The colonists’ rebellion would only be complete once a linguistic revolution had liberated them from the language of England. They would then have a new, American language, and he longed for the day it would be as unintelligible to an Englishman as German is to a Swede.
These ideas from America’s schoolteacher did not receive a warm reception, despite Webster’s ranting that “ther iz no alternativ.” He consoled himself with the tonic sought by every intellectual: The American public was too small-minded for his ideas. Accusations of megalomania and self-serving ambition hounded Webster, but his defense was his nationalism. The actions of a nationalist cannot be self-serving, just as a god, by definition, cannot have hubris. He became increasingly bitter, and lived long enough to see Andrew Jackson’s America, which caused him to regret not only the radicalism of his youth but even having had a hand, however small, in the revolution that brought the republic into being. He advocated restricting suffrage to men over 45, and his dictionary, completed in 1828, included such insightful glosses as “republic [not in use]” and “virtue [meaning obsolete].” Fittingly, the only word he contributed to the English language was demoralize.
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” Orwell’s Syme declared, deep inside the Ministry of Truth. As a man of great learning, Webster understood the conservative role of the written word, but as a radical, he believed it threatened his America with the corruptions of Europe, moldering in its ancient and medieval past. It is through the written word that the dead speak to us. Any moderately literate person can pick up Chaucer’s 600-year-old Canterbury Tales and, despite the still-unresolved tension between Saxon and French elements in Middle English, make his way through most of the poet’s words without trouble.
But if the reader can understand easily enough that April showers bring “the droghte of March” to an end, when the “smale fowles maken melodye,” let him listen to a reconstruction of what it probably sounded like (as in the Virginia Military Institute’s Chaucer Audio Files online). What is familiar and intelligible to the eye becomes foreign and inscrutable to the ear. A few years ago, London’s Globe Theatre performed Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida with a carefully reconstructed pronunciation that rendered the bard largely incomprehensible. None of this matters, of course, because it is the written word that we have, and that is far more conservative than the spoken. Webster would have demolished that role of conservation in order to eradicate the colonies’ cultural ties to their own past. As one of his contemporaries remarked, Webster did not have “the memory of his ancestors in his heart, or a spark of English spirit glowing in his veins.”
One lexicographer who did have the memory of his ancestors in his heart was J.R.R. Tolkien, who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. Already at age 18, Tolkien was urging his fellow students at King Edward’s School to adopt “right English goodliness of speechcraft.” Couching his argument in humor, young Tolkien had a serious point to make: Writers of English pretentiously sought words of French or Latin origin, or derived their own, when there were perfectly good Anglo words ready at hand. Orwell agreed, connecting this tendency not only to bad writing but to social engineering.
Whereas Webster thought the Germanic languages barbaric, and the Norman Conquest a civilizing mission, Tolkien regretted profoundly the resulting loss of Anglo-Saxon traditions, Christian and pre-Christian, that had been preserved for centuries in literature and speech. Much of the aesthetic appeal of the Lord of the Rings lies in Tolkien’s lifelong commitment to rescuing some of that past, observable not only in the imagery of his works but in the rhythm of their English. Webster would erect a wall to cut off the past; Tolkien wanted to find ways to bridge the centuries by embracing the conservative features of the language that had been so long distorted or ignored.
Noah Webster concluded his Dissertations by arguing that, without a new language of her own, America would never command respect abroad. He closed with words as chilling as any to come out of 1789: “In short, let it be impressed upon the mind of every American that to neglect the means of commanding respect abroad is treason against the character and dignity of a brave, independent people.”
Or rather, it would be treezun, and that is a very ugly word, indeed.