The Founding Fathers of the United States had a vision of how the government should work for the new country. Another American felt the same way regarding the English language.
The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall examines the life of Noah Webster, a man who became obsessed with words. Webster came from Connecticut attending schools including Yale College in that colony. He started his career as an educator and writer. He contributed to the field of education by producing a grammar book, a reader, and a speller. Many American schoolchildren learned their spelling from this blue-backed book.
Webster’s main object with the speller focused on getting Americans to adapt their version of the English language to make it their own. “Webster’s speller also gave rise to America’s first national pastime, the spelling bee,” Kindall writes.
Besides teaching and writing, Webster studied law; however, he never had much legal work. He wrote many articles under various names supporting the Federalist Party to help the new country view itself as one nation rooted in the freedom of the founding documents. He started a newspaper in New York City, which kept him busy for a few years before he returned to his native Connecticut.
Throughout his life, Noah Webster had a compulsion to keep track of minutia. He recorded the number of houses in cities, the daily weather and observations of the world around him. This fascination caused him to begin his study of words and language, leading to his first attempt to compile a dictionary for the new nation.
He felt that American English and Americanisms common to the country should take center stage in American life. He wanted to update the English dictionary published by Samuel Johnson to reflect this. Webster’s first dictionary came out in 1806.
Webster kept up his work on his dictionary by exploring the history of words even going back to the original Anglo-Saxon. He also changed the spellings of words such as removing the letter “u” from words like “color” and “flavor.” He studied different languages, even traveling to Europe to consult their libraries. In a painstaking process, he tried to compile every possible English word including scientific terms, giving them an American twist.
In 1828, Webster published his American dictionary. He added words that spoke the language of everyday life with the result that many words such as “re-organize” and “retaliatory” made their first appearance in print. Many people praised Webster for his work of 30 years in putting together the dictionary. While working on his seminal reference book, Webster lived in Amherst Massachusetts and helped start Amherst College.
The name Webster is still synonymous with dictionary in honor of the man who devoted his life to it. Some may not feel that Noah Webster should be thought of as a Founding Father, but his influence on American life and language lives on today.
I found this biography of Noah Webster to be compelling. It caused me to think about words and how they are used in the language. I have often wondered why some words are spelled differently in England, and now I know that Webster is the one responsible for this change! The United States has a richer language because one man cared enough to help shape it to the new nation.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.