Wednesday, April 15th, 2020...3:43 pm

Noah Webster: The Kanye West of Lexicographers

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Angelica B

Image: Angelica B.

Noah Webster is undeniably problematic. It’s why once the rights to his famous dictionary were posthumously sold to Merriam, they immediately hired a new linguist to redo the entire etymology, and why he was known as  “a spiteful viper”, “an incurable lunatic” and “unlikeable” by those that knew him (Kendall 7; Kreidler 109). It’s also why, I will argue, that his ideas have been wrongfully dismissed.

For 100 years after publication in 1783, his Blue-Backed Speller came second only to the Bible for number of copies sold in America (Kendall 77). He played a significant role in forming America’s identity, particularly in its separation from Britain through language. Like most, Webster was not successful in every idea he had. To get a better idea of the work Webster was doing, and what actually resulted from it, it is helpful to look at Webster’s Dissertations on the English Language, wherein Webster proposed three changes, the first of which was “the omission of all superfluous or silent letters” (394). This wud shorten words significantly, and by removing unecesary leters, peple cud lern to spel mor quikly. The second change was the “substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate” (395). This wud meen the remoovel ov ie for the us ov ee, for exampl. Thirdlee, the “alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character” (395). Rather than introdoos, for exampl, θ or ð intu the langooaj, a strok wud bee plasd abov th too indikat the voisd interdentel frikativ.

In reading that and feeling an accompanying sense of unease, it’s pretty obvious not all of his changes were adopted. However, they are more prevalent than one might think. Plow instead of plough, draft instead of draught, center instead of centre, color instead of colour are all a result of changes that Webster suggested in his Dissertations. People have always been hesitant to change, even more so when the change is suggested from someone with bad character. Webster was so set in his ways that, while working on his etymology for An American Dictionary of the English Language, he fired his assistant for suggesting that, rather than perusing dictionaries of various languages and making conclusions based on the words in front of him, Webster should consider the Indo-European hypothesis (Kreidler 109). Understandably, Webster’s inability to accept criticism made it difficult for people to take his ideas seriously. Without this stubborn, egotistical attitude, he would not have finished, or possibly even attempted, such a massive project as the 70,000-entry American Dictionary, and thus, American English would not be what it is today.

So, while I wouldn’t say a large ego is essential for evoking change, or that his behaviour was commendable, I would urge others to try and separate egos from ideas whenever possible. Sometimes large egos can lead to disaster, but sometimes they can lead to breakthroughs. It’s always important to consider if the ends justify the means, however ridiculous the “means” might be.

Works Cited

Kendall, Joshua C. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.

Kreidler, Charles W. “Noah Webster’s Linguistic Influences” Language & Communication vol. 18, 1998, pp.101-110. ScienceDirect, (98)00004-4.

Webster, Noah. Dissertations on the English Language, 1789, Menston, Eng.: Scholar, 1967.

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