“Now is the time, and this the country ... Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government.”
That is what Noah Webster wrote in 1789 at the age of 31, long before he had compiled the nation’s first major dictionary. It is a clarion call for American linguistic unity and independence in his Dissertations on the English Language—a 409-page treatise remarkable for its boldness and length as much as for its sweeping, generalized history of the language. The book’s main argument goes something like this: There is to be no elite in America, no linguistic differentiation between classes and regions.
For Webster, new nationhood provided unique opportunities for language reform—opportunities that would fade quickly, he warns, if not grabbed before America’s language, like Britain’s, deteriorated owing to homegrown “corruptions” such as regional dialects, affectation, nostalgia for English manners and customs, class divisions, and innumerable other evils. At least America did not have to cope with the deleterious effects of “superfluous ornament” in prose like Edward Gibbon’s and Samuel Johnson’s, the language of nobility and the British Court, and “the influence of men, learned in Greek and Latin, but ignorant of their own tongue; who have laboured to reject much good English, because they have not understood the original construction of the language.”
The Dissertations illustrates, at a young age, Webster’s copious memory and tireless and detailed attention to what would become self-defining themes in his efforts to reform the profile of the English language in America: hundreds of sounds and numerous examples of classes of letters and words that complicate English pronunciation, orthography that confounds consistent pronunciation, irregularity of orthography that bedevils young people and adults alike, and etymology to which few people paid much attention but that would, if handled his way, clarify and help solve a good many problems in the way the language is learned and used. The sheer effort is impressive.