Steve Woods

Noah Webster’s American Language Revolution

In What Day is it? on October 16, 2009 at 10:56 am

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”  ~ Noah Webster

The year was 1827.  Students at Cambridge University had gotten used to the elderly man sitting behind the dusty stacks of thick books, busily pouring over them, scratching his head and taking notes at one of the wooden private desks.  It was always best to not disturb one whose manner of self-employment held such a note of gravity, and so the man was left to his own pursuits.

Noah Webster at Yale

Noah Webster at Yale

The Beginnings of an American Icon

Born Oct. 16, 1758, Noah Webster grew up in Hartford, Connecticut on a farm that had been a part of his family since earliest Colonial days.  At 16, Noah attended Yale University during the Revolutionary War, breaking from his studies for a time to serve in the Connecticut Militia.  Noah taught school after graduation from Yale, in order to pay his tuition while pursuing a law degree, which he obtained in 1781.  Being a lawyer did not suit young Noah, who then went on to teach.  During his teaching tenure, Noah scoffed at the English-made textbooks used in American classrooms, and developed grammar books that sold quite well.  Ultimately his scholarly success led to Noah becoming a schoolmaster of renown in his quiet New Haven, Connecticut community.

A Man of Constant Innovation and Reinvention

Noah's Speller Began a Prolific Writing Career

Noah's Speller Began a Prolific Writing Career

While schoolmaster, Noah Webster decided that the English dictionaries provided to his students were unsuitable, as they did not include the distinct vocabulary of American-style English used in everyday life.   Noah Webster decided to develop a new form of dictionary, a uniquely American dictionary, filled with both the old English and still-emerging “American” language.  Noah wished to break from the stylistic dictates of England’s dictionary writers upon the American spoken word.  Noah was brewing a linguistic revolution…

Sacrificing a Life for a Language

Noah was 43 when he undertook this endeavor, soon discovering that he was in over his head, as he realized even his own knowledge of word derivations was lacking.  In order to complete such a challenging project to his own exacting specifications, Noah would have to make a choice: either stay on as headmaster and continue enjoying the comfortable company of friends, and a community that respected his position in life, or dash it all aside for the hard work of helping his fellow American’s vocabulary.  The choice, at least to Noah, was clear.

The First American Dictionary

The First American Dictionary

For 7 years Noah toiled with little success on his project, discovering that in order to gain the necessary  grasp of word origins (etymologies,) he would have to leave America, and immerse himself in the culture and language of those countries that had contributed so greatly to the English (and American) language.  For the next 20 years of his older life, Noah lived first in Paris and then England, where he continued his research in the vast libraries of Cambridge University.  During his overseas tenure, Noah learned an incredible 26 languages, including German, Latin, Old English, Italian, Spanish, French, Arabic, Hebrew and Ancient Sanskrit.

The First Truly American Lexicography

After so many years of hard work and self-improvement, Noah Webster completed his first edition of what was the then titled An American Dictionary of the English Language, the first English dictionary to include the unique lexicography of American life, the first truly American Dictionary.  Noah was 70 years old, and fiercely got to work in seeing that every American got a copy.

Today, over 55 million copies of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary sell each year.  It is still, to this day, considered to be the modern lexicographer’s dictionary of choice.  Noah Webster set the benchmark as to what it means to be a scholar, to roll up one’s mental sleeves and get the damn job done.

Chronicling How We Express Our American Spirit

Remembered forever...

He would've embraced what is happening with language today...

Noah Webster believed in democratizing our language, arguing that its sovereignty lay in the hands of the people, who would control its evolving lexicography through its daily use.  No longer would stuffy dictionary writers tell us how we should talk; we would teach them instead how to tend to their dictionaries, adding the special nuances we developed as we worked together, expressed our joys in close companionship, brought forth our needs and affections in common pursuit of happiness, and shared that sacred spark of Life, so very close to the ground….

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  1. A long, long time ago when I was a freshman in high school, I briefly attended a private, catholic boarding school. Before I was kicked out for being a little too different from all the rest, there were one or two things I learned and have carried and passed on to this day.
    As a requirement for a speed reading class, there were several books that were listed in the curriculum, one of which was the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
    I remember how he chronicled his time in prison as a young man, and how he wanted to prove to himself and others that he was not just some dumb black man destined to spend his life in prison.
    He decided to educate himself. One of the ways he did this was by copying every word in the Webster Dictionary and rewriting and using each word in a sentence till he fully understood their meaning.
    Though not as diligently as Malcolm X, I too started playing this game on my own and later encouraged my son to practice this advice. There is power in them words!

  2. Indeed! I love glancing through the dictionary aimlessly, finding new treasures. I always look forward to the annual announcement of new additions to our lexicography.

    I believe that Noah would have been so excited to see how our language is morphing under the sheer weight of the Information Revolution. I think he would be on the forefront of documenting the changes, and celebrating them to all…

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