Noah Webster, teacher, writer and language reformer. 1758 - 1843
"Our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government"
- Noah Webster, on American language
Born on 16th October 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut
, his family were typical of the early colonials - his father farmed and worked as a weaver, his mother raised the family of five children. He had a tremendous love of learning, so his parents sent him to Yale
, when he was 16. After his graduation in 1778
, he began teaching, but found fault with the schooling system and the textbooks, which were all imported from England.
This prompted him to begin a project which would take the rest of his life. From 1783 to 1785 he worked on "A Grammatical Institute of the English Language", in three parts, a speller, a grammar and a reader. The American Speller was a particular success. Known as the "Blue-backed Speller", sales during his lifetime (80 million copies) were such that, with his royalies of one cent a copy, he could concentrate on writing yet more textbooks for the American education system.
Noah's view was that language use should be reflected in spelling and grammar, rather than the other way around:
"Several circumstances render a future separation of the American tongue from the English neccessary and unavoidable... Numerous local causes...will introduce new words into the American tongue. These causes will produce, in a course of time, a language in North America, as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or one another..." 1
This, coupled with a desire for simplification and the personal determination to effect changes at all levels, produced a sea change
in the language used by the American people. With his textbooks in use in almost all schools, he set to work on educators and politicians, writing letters and essays, and travelling widely to lecture and influence.
To illustrate his drive, one story will suffice: one printer recalls that Webster came into the office and handed him a slip which read "My lad, when you use these words, please oblige me by spelling them as here: theater, center, etc." He was simply determined to make the American language a thing of beauty and a cause for pride, and above all different from and superior to British English. This drive culminated in his publishing of his greatest work.
He also studied law, being admitted to the bar in 1781, and practiced law in Hartford until 1793, at which point he founded The American Minerva daily newspaper in New York, and also published a semi-weekly digest of articles, The Herald, although he sold both papers in 1803.
In 1806, he published the first wholly American dictionary, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. With only 5,000 words defined, it must be seen as merely laying the groundwork for his later American Dictionary, which he began work on in 1807.
His zeal and desire for accuracy are seen in his preparation for this epic task, gaining some knowledge of around twenty languages, and travelling through France and England for two years to seek out material. His work began to show fruit in 1828, with the first publication of An American Dictionary of the English Language in two volumes. With sales of 2,500 in the States, and 3,000 in England, it sold out in a year, but controversy surrounded almost all its contents.
The British purists were horrified at the spelling (some of us still rail against it), "Americanisms" and the use of technical terms from the arts and sciences. Harsh comparisons were made with Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, even though Webster's work was more complete and original, defining over 70,000 words - almost twice that of any comparable work.
Sadly, however, the dictionary was not a financial success, and he was forced to mortgage his house to publish the 1841 revision, which was not successful. He continued to live in debt, and following his death on 28th May 1843, the rights to the dictionary were sold to George and Charles Merriam.
Noah Webster, the man
Noah was a careful man, and sought simplicity. He was also concerned about coarseness and vulgarity, and was "touchy about the common taboo words" (EB) and also published a somewhat bowdlerised version of the Bible, leaving out some of the more colourful passages relating to sex, and euphemistically glossing over others.
He married Rebecca Greenleaf in 1789, with whom he had eight children. He loved children, and is said to have carried sweets and fruit in his pockets for them. Living the rest his life in and around New Haven, he was also instrumental in founding Amherst College.
There can be little doubt of the impact that Noah Webster had on the American culture and education system. He gave the new country its own language, which although loved by some and hated by others, is a legacy of influence which will carry forward through all generations worldwide.
1 "The Story of English" - faber and faber