Noah Webster and spelling

Noah Webster had a key influence on modern American spelling thanks to his famous series of dictionaries, which are still in use today. Born in Connecticut, Webster studied to become a lawyer but instead discovered a passion for teaching. Some of his ideas deviated so much from the standards of the day that they were denounced as mad and radical by his contemporaries, and he himself was accused of being “an incurable lunatic”. So why did he want to change English spelling in the first place, and how extensive was his influence on American English spelling?

The United States was a young country in Webster’s day – in fact, Webster was 18 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. He wanted the new nation to have a distinctive style of English and break away from the language of the British Empire: “Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government.” He also wanted to make the written language easier to learn, for both children and foreigners learning English as a second language. He was dissatisfied with the many confusing differences between spelling and pronunciation in English and set about creating a new spelling system to address the problem.

In his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, Webster stripped away what he saw as unnecessary complication. He used “color” instead of the British standard “colour”, for example, and “center” rather than the French-influenced “centre”. Webster wasn’t keen on French influence and believed that the existing spelling system was “corrupt; having been vitiated during the dark ages of English literature, under the Norman princes.” That may be why, for instance, he changed “cheque” to “check” – a spelling convention that Americans still use today.

It’s worth noting, though, that Webster didn’t always invent these spellings from scratch. Both “color” and “center” can be found in Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was published just three years after the Mayflower arrived in North America. In that sense, Webster’s preferred spelling system linked back to his nation’s roots, using conventions that the first settlers might have been familiar with. He generally favoured older forms of English spelling over the conventions of his own time:

  • It will perhaps surprize my readers to be told that, in many particular words, the modern spelling is less correct than the ancient... Chaucer, four hundred years ago, wrote bilder for builder; dedly for deadly; ernest for earnest; erly for early; brest for breast; hed for head; and certainly his spelling was the most agreeable to the pronunciation… In these and many other instances, the modern spelling is a corruption

Many of his spelling conventions have now become standard in American English. Americans “favor” dropping the “u” from words ending in –our, preferring “honor”, “valor” and “candor” over “honour”, “valour” and “candour”. He is also credited with changing the “–ise” endings of words like “realise” and “scandalise” to “–ize”, another change that aligned spelling more closely to pronunciation. Americans soon got “acclimatized” to this change, and it is now a distinguishing feature of American English.

Many of his suggested spellings didn’t catch on: “daughter” did not change to “dawter”, “believe” did not become “beleev”, and “machines” did not get replaced by “masheens” (perhaps another example of Webster’s distaste for spellings with French influence). In his own writing, Webster used his own spelling system rather than what he called “the common orthography”. In a published collection of his essays, Webster opines on the “Fatal Effects of employing Men of low Karacters in Skools”, the “Origin of Guvernment” and the “Comparativ Temperature of the Wether in the Northern and Suthern States”.

Even though he couldn’t convince others to adopt all of his conventions, Webster still had a great influence over spelling in the young nation – an especially impressive feat considering the many failed attempts at English spelling reform. Perhaps it takes “an incurable lunatic” like Webster to make change happen.

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