The Philosophy Behind the First American Dictionary

In 1789, Noah Webster called on the newly independent United States to claim its own national version of the English language.

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.”

(Princeton University Press)

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.

The most distinctive character of the Dissertations, however, relates to his assessment of flaws in American culture; his antipathy toward foreign influences; his strident plea for the banishment of local dialect and pronunciation; the establishment of a national “standard” of language; his assertions that all languages descend from “a common stock”; his elaborate scheme to reform spelling in America; and, especially, a distrust of a variety of so-called authorities in matters of language usage that, if unchecked, he is adamant would threaten national unity. These aspects of Webster’s philosophy can sometimes seem to conflict with one another; though his dedication praises Benjamin Franklin for never assuming “dictatorial authority,” it is less clear that Webster himself avoids it. Here are a few examples:

When a particular set of men, in exalted stations, undertake to say “we are the standards of propriety and elegance, and if all men do not conform to our practice, they shall be accounted vulgar and ignorant,” they take a very great liberty with the rules of the language and the rights of civility.

If language must vary, like fashions, at the caprice of a court, we must have our standard dictionaries republished, with the fashionable pronunciation, at least once in five years; otherwise a gentleman in the country will become intolerably vulgar.

Customs, habits, and language, as well as government should be national. America should have her own distinct from all the world.

In his Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings (he spells fugitive provokingly without the e), published the following year, Webster exhibits his proposals with an ardor that became the butt of jokes for years to come. He was mocked, for example, for parading his spelling reforms in his preface with a warning to his readers that amounts to a self-parody:

In the essays, ritten within the last year, a considerable change in spelling iz introduced by way of experiment. This liberty waz taken by the writers before the age of queen Elizabeth, and to this we are indeted for the preference of modern spelling over that of [John] Gower and [Geoffrey] Chaucer.

Getting into the swing of it and explaining why he concealed his name in many of his early essays, he continues:

I very erly discuvered, that altho the name of an old and respectable karacter givs credit and consequence to hiz ritings, yet the name of a yung man iz often prejudicial to hiz performances. By conceeling my name, the opinions of men hav been prezerved from an undu bias arizing from personal prejudices, the faults of the ritings hav been detected, and their merit in public estimation ascertained.

He lost a good $400 (about $10,000 today) on the Dissertations, which added to his money worries. More than anything else, he wanted to write, but he thought he might try the business world, perhaps as a book merchant in Boston: “To renounce all my literary pursuits, which are now very congenial with my habits, would not … make me unhappy,” he wrote in a letter. He decided instead to take up an offer to edit and write a new Federalist newspaper, the American Minerva, in New York, which would undergo several name and leadership changes before an exhausted Webster severed his ties. William Cobbett, the successful editor of Porcupine’s Gazette in Philadelphia, who had endured just about enough of what he regarded as Webster’s self-proclaimed and bombastic authority, called him “a most gross calumniator,” “a great fool,” and a “bare-faced liar.” Many others also taunted Webster in print.

Embittered and deeply in debt, Webster mourned that America had begun to “crumble”: “From the date of Adam, to this moment,” he ranted in the July 12, 1797, issue of his newspaper, the Minerva, “no country was ever so infested with corrupt and wicked men, as the United States … Bankrupt speculators, rich bankrupts, ‘patriotic’ Atheists … are spread over the United States … deceiving the people with lies … We see in our new Republic, the decrepitude of Vice; and a free government hastening to ruin, with a rapidity without example.”

Webster was certainly not alone with his Jeremiah-like lamentations. There was widespread dismay among Americans, including the Founders, that the social and intellectual foundations of the new nation had been corrupted by the lack of unifying authority in an undisciplined democracy, whether in politics, social customs and manners, religion, or language.

Webster blamed the British ruling classes for most of the problems he identified in early American childhood education and the American language. He regarded this as part of the malaise of a new nation that was failing to declare its cultural independence from Britain. In Webster’s mind, the heart and soul of this problem was linguistic subservience. It turned him into what some have called the nation’s first language strategist. Having read essays by German philosophers on how a national language could determine the moral behavior of a country’s populace, he became convinced that a national language could be an integral part of a comprehensive American cultural revolution. Such a revolution, he hoped, would ensure the preservation of a distinctly American republican culture with far-reaching effects on the country’s institutions, as well as on the morals and behavior of its citizens.

He spent the rest of his life on vigorous efforts toward creating a standard so vague that it never even came close to existing in American cultural life. By the time he died in 1843, Webster was disillusioned and angry. His vision of a nation somehow united by a distinctly American language had evaporated, and his dictionary was on its way to extinction—or so he thought.

This article has been excerpted from Peter Martin’s forthcoming book, THE DICTIONARY WARS: The American Fight over the English Language. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission from Princeton University Press.