Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY
“Letters, the most useful invention that ever blessed mankind, lose a part of their value by no longer being the representatives of the sounds originally annexed to them. The effect is to destroy the benefits of the alphabet.” Noah Webster
Noah Webster: Biography of a simplified spelling advocate By: Steve T. Bett, Ph.D
NOTE: THE CHILDREN OF THE CODE PROJECT IS NOT ADVOCATING ALPHABET OR SPELLING REFORM. WE SHARE THESE PIECES AS EXHIBITS OF THINKING ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CODE AND READING RELATED PROBLEMS.
“Noah Webster not only pushed for simplified spelling, but lobbied Congress to make it a legal requirement – turning America into the only country in history where deviant spelling would be a punishable, offence.”
“The Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson
Webster’s 1789 prophesy concerning grave consequences of failure to adopt rational English orthography has indeed come to pass. He wrote, “Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal … the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply.“
NOAH WEBSTER URGES REFORM OF SPELLING (1789) From Noah Webster, “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation,” Dissertations on the English Language: With Notes, Historical and Critical, to Which is Added, by Way of Appendix, an Essay on a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Dr. Franklin’s Arguments on That Subject (Boston. 1789). pp. 391. 393-98. 405-6.
It has been observed by all writers, on the English language, that the orthography or spelling of words is very irregular; the same letters often representing different sounds, and the same sounds often expressed by different letters. For this irregularity, two principal causes may be assigned:
1. The changes to which the pronunciation of a language is liable, from the progress of science and civilization.
2. The mixture of different languages, occasioned by revolutions in England, or by a predilection of the learned, for words of foreign growth and ancient origin.
The question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniencies in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE? Let us consider this subject with some attention.
Several attempts were formerly made in England to rectify the orthography of the language. But I apprehend their schemes failed to success, rather on account of their intrinsic difficulties, than on account of any necessary impracticability of a reform. It was proposed, in most of these schemes, not merely to throw out superfluous and silent letters, but to introduce a number of new characters. Any attempt on such a plan must undoubtedly prove unsuccessful. It is not to be expected that an orthography, perfectly regular and simple, such as would be formed by a “Synod of Grammarians on principles of science,” will ever be substituted for that confused mode of spelling which is now established. But it is apprehended that great improvements may be made, and an orthography almost regular, or such as shall obviate most of the present difficulties which occur in learning our language, may be introduced and established with little trouble and opposition.
The principal alterations, necessary to render our orthography sufficiently regular and easy, are these:
1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.
2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf forlaugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic,arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation.
3. Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.
4. A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character. Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel, in this manner, a, or û, or i might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the dipthong ow, let the two letters be united by a small stroke, or both engraven on the same piece of metal, with the left hand line of the w united to the o.
These, with a few other inconsiderable alterations, would answer every purpose, and render the orthography sufficiently correct and regular.
The advantages to be derived from these alterations are numerous, great and permanent.
1. The simplicity of the orthography would facilitate the learning of the language. It is now the work of years for children to learn to spell; and after all, the business is rarely accomplished. A few men, who are bred to some business that requires constant exercise in writing, finally learn to spell most words without hesitation; but most people remain, all their lives, imperfect masters of spelling, and liable to make mistakes, whenever they take up a pen to write a short note. Nay, many people, even of education and fashion, never attempt to write a letter, without frequently consulting a dictionary.
But with the proposed orthography, a child would learn to spell, without trouble, in a very short time, and the orthography being very regular, he would ever afterwards find it difficult to make a mistake. It would, in that case, be as difficult to spell wrong as it is now to spell right.
Besides this advantage, foreigners would be able to acquire the pronunciation of English, which is now so difficult and embarrassing, that they are either wholly discouraged on the first attempt, or obliged, after many years labor, to rest contented with an imperfect knowledge of the subject.
2. A correct orthography would render the pronunciation of the language, as uniform as the spelling in books. A general uniformity thro the United States, would be the event of such a reformation as I am here recommending. All persons, of every rank, would speak with some degree of precision and uniformity. Such a uniformity in these states is very desireable; it would remove prejudice, and conciliate mutual affection and respect.
3. Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.
4. But a capital advantage of this reform in these states would be, that it would make a difference between the English orthography and the American. This will startle those who have not attended to the subject; but I am confident that such an event is an object of vast political consequence. For,
The alteration, however small, would encourage the publication of books in our own country. It would render it, in some measure, necessary that all books should be printed in America. The English would never copy our orthography for their own use; and consequently the same impressions of books would not answer for both countries. The inhabitants of the present generation would read the English impressions; but posterity, being taught a different spelling, would prefer the American orthography.
Besides this, a national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character. However, they may boast of Independence, and the freedom of their government, yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent; an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners, are still prevalent among the Americans.
Sensible I am how much easier it is to propose improvements, than to introduce them. Every thing new starts the idea of difficulty; and yet it is often mere novelty that excites the appearance; for on a slight examination of the proposal, the difficulty vanishes. When we firmly believe a scheme to be practicable, the work is half accomplished. We are more frequently deterred by fear from making an attack, than repulsed in the encounter.
Habit also is opposed to changes; for it renders even our errors dear to us. Having surmounted all difficulties in childhood, we forget the labor, the fatigue, and the perplexity we suffered in the attempt, and imagin[e] the progress of our studies to have been smooth and easy. What seems intrinsically right, is so merely thro habit.
Indolence is another obstacle to improvements. The most arduous task a reformer has to execute, is to make people think; to rouse them from that lethargy, which, like the mantle of sleep, covers them in repose and contentment.
But America is in a situation the most favorable for great reformations; and the present time is, in a singular degree, auspicious. The minds of men in this country have been awakened. New scenes have been, for many years, presenting new occasions for exertion; unexpected distresses have called forth the powers of invention; and the application of new expedients has demanded every possible exercise of wisdom and talents. Attention is roused; the mind expanded; and the intellectual faculties invigorated. Here men are prepared to receive improvements, which would be rejected by nations, whose habits have not been shaken by similar events.
Now is the time, and this the country, in which we may expect success, in attempting changes favorable to language, science and government. Delay, in the plan here proposed, may be fatal; under a tranquil general government, the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow; and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties, which time and accident will perpetually multiply.
Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government. Let us remember that there is a certain respect due to the opinions of other nations. As an independent people, our reputation abroad demands that, in all things, we should be federal; be national; for if we do not respect ourselves, we may be assured that other nations will not respect us. In short, let it be impressed upon the mind of every American, that to neglect the means of commanding respect abroad, is treason against the character and dignity of a brave independent people.
NOAH WEBSTER ON THE NECESSITY FOR AN AMERICAN LANGUAGE (1789) From Noah Webster., “An Essay on the Necessity. Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling . . .” Dissertations on the English Language. . . (Boston. 1789), pp. 17-19, 288-90,393-98.
A regular study of language has in all civilized countries, formed a part of a liberal education. The Greeks, Romans, Italians and French successively improved their native tongues, taught them in Academies at home, and rendered them entertaining and useful to the foreign student.
The English tongue, tho later in its progress towards perfection, has attained to a considerable degree of purity, strength and elegance, and been employed, by an active and scientific nation, to record almost all the events and discoveries of ancient and modem times.
This language is the inheritance which the Americans have received from their British parents. To cultivate and adorn it, is a task reserved for men who shall understand the connection between language and logic, and form an adequate idea of the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments.
It will be readily admitted that the pleasures of reading and conversing, the advantage of accuracy in business, the necessity of clearness and precision in communicating ideas, require us to be able to speak and write our own tongue with ease and correctness. But there are more important reasons, why the language of this country should be reduced to such fixed principles, as may give its pronunciation and construction all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving.
The United States were settled by emigrants from different parts of Europe. But their descendants mostly speak the same tongue; and the intercourse among the learned of the different States, which the revolution has begun, and an American Court will perpetuate, must gradually destroy the differences of dialect which our ancestors brought from their native countries. This approximation of dialects will be certain; but without the operation of other causes than an intercourse at Court, it will be slow and partial. The body of the people, governed by habit, will still retain their respective peculiarities of speaking; and for want of schools and proper books, fall into many inaccuracies, which, incorporating with the language of the state where they live, may imperceptibly corrupt the national language. Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books, can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue. A sameness of pronunciation is of considerable consequence in a political view; for provincial accents are disagreeable to strangers and sometimes have an unhappy effect upon the social affections. All men have local attachments, which lead them to believe their own practice to be the least exceptionable. Pride and prejudice incline men to treat the practice of their neighbors with some degree of contempt. Thus small differences in pronunciation at first excite ridicule–a habit of laughing at the singularities of strangers is followed by disrespect–and without respect friendship is a name, and social intercourse a mere ceremony.
These remarks hold equally true, with respect to individuals, to small societies and to large communities. Small causes, such as a nick-name, or a vulgar tone in speaking, have actually created a dissocial spirit between the inhabitants of the different states, which is often discoverable in private business and public deliberations. Our political harmony is therefore concerned in a uniformity of language.
As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. But if it were not so, she is at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue.
It must be considered further, that the English is the common root or stock from which our national language will be derived. All others will gradually waste away-and within a century and a half, North America will be peopled with a hundred millions of men, all speaking the same language. Place this idea in comparison with the present and possible future bounds of the language in Europe–consider the Eastern Continent as inhabited by nations, whose knowledge and intercourse are embarrassed by differences of language; then anticipate the period when the people of one quarter of the world, will be able to associate and converse together like children of the same family.1 Compare this prospect, which is not visionary, with the state of the English language in Europe, almost confined to an Island and to a few millions of people; then let reason and reputation decide, how far America should be dependent on a transatlantic nation, for her standard and improvements in language.
Let me add, that whatever predilection the Americans may have for their native European tongues, and particularly the British descendants for the English, yet several circumstances render a future separation of the American tongue from the English, necessary and unavoidable. The vicinity of the European nations, with the uninterrupted communication in peace, and the changes of dominion in war, are gradually assimilating their respective languages. The English with others is suffering continual alterations. America, placed at a distance from those nations, will feel, in a much less degree, the influence of the assimilating causes; at the same time, numerous local causes, such as a new country, new associations of people, new combinations of ideas in arts and science, and some intercourse with tribes wholly unknown in Europe, will introduce new words into the American tongue. These causes will produce, in a course of time, a language in North America, as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or from one another: Like remote branches of a tree springing from the same stock; or rays of light, shot from the same center, and diverging from each other, in proportion to their distance from the point of separation.
Whether the inhabitants of America can be brought to a perfect uniformity in the pronunciation of words, it is not easy to predict; but it is certain that no attempt of the kind has been made, and an experiment, begun and pursued on the right principles, is the only way to decide the question. Schools in Great Britain have gone far towards demolishing local dialects–commerce has also had its influence–and in America these causes, operating more generally, must have a proportional effect.
In many parts of America, people at present attempt to copy the English phrases and pronunciation–an attempt that is favored by their habits, their prepossessions and the intercourse between the two countries. This attempt has, within the period of a few years, produced a multitude of changes in these particulars, especially among the leading classes of people. These changes make a difference between the language of the higher and common ranks; and indeed between the same ranks in different states; as the rage for copying the English, does not prevail equally in every part of North America.
But besides the reasons already assigned to prove this imitation absurd, there is a difficulty attending it, which will defeat the end proposed by its advocates; which is, that the English themselves have no standard of pronunciation, nor can they ever have one on the plan they propose. The Authors, who have attempted to give us a standard, make the practice of the court and stage in London the sole criterion of propriety in speaking. An attempt to establish a standard on this foundation is both unjust and idle. It is unjust, because it is abridging the nation of its rights: The general practice of a nation is the rule of propriety, and this practice should at least be consulted in so important a matter, as that of making laws for speaking. While all men are upon a footing and no singularities are accounted vulgar or ridiculous, every man enjoys perfect liberty. But 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.
But an attempt to fix a standard on the practice of any particular class of people is highly absurd: As a friend of mine once observed, it is like fixing a light house on a floating island. It is an attempt to fix that which is in itself variable; at least it must be variable so long as it is supposed that a local practice has no standard but a local practice; that is, no standard but itself. While this doctrine is believed, it will be impossible for a nation to follow as fast as the standard changes–for if the gentlemen at court constitute a standard, they are above it themselves, and their practice must shift with their passions and their whims.
But this is not all. If the practice of a few men in the capital is to be the standard, a knowledge of this must be communicated to the whole nation. Who shall do this? An able compiler perhaps attempts to give this practice in a dictionary; but it is probable that the pronunciation, even at court, or on the stage, is not uniform. The compiler therefore must follow his particular friends and patrons; in which case he is sure to be opposed and the authority of his standard called in question; or he must give two pronunciations as the standard, which leaves the student in the same uncertainty as it found him. Both these events have actually taken place in England, with respect to the most approved standards; and of course no one is universally followed.
Besides, 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, by not being in a situation to adopt the fashion of the day. The new editions of them will supersede the old, and we shall have our pronunciation to re-learn, with the polite alterations, which are generally corruptions.
Such are the consequences of attempting to make a local practice the standard of language in a nation. The attempt must keep the language in perpetual fluctuation, and the learner in uncertainty.
If a standard therefore cannot be fixed on local and variable custom, on what shall it be fixed? If the most eminent speakers are not to direct our practice, where shall we look for a guide? The answer is extremely easy; the rules of the language itself, and the general practice of the nation, constitute propriety in speaking. If we examine the structure of any language, we shall find a certain principle of analogy running through the whole. We shall find in English that similar combinations of letters have usually the same pronunciation; and that words, having the same terminating syllable, generally have the accent at the same distance from that termination. These principles of analogy were not the result of design–they must have been the effect of accident, or that tendency which all men feel towards uniformity. But the principles, when established, are productive of great convenience, and become an authority superior to the arbitrary decisions of any man or class of men. There is one exception only to this remark: When a deviation from analogy has become the universal practice of a nation, it then takes place of all rules and becomes the standard of propriety.
The two points therefore, which I conceive to be the basis of a standard in speaking, are these; universal undisputed practice, and the principle of analogy. Universal practice is generally, perhaps always, a rule of propriety; and in disputed points, where people differ in opinion and practice, analogy should always decide the controversy.
1Even supposing that a number of republics, kingdoms or empires, should within a century arise and divide this vast territory; still the subjects of all will speak the same language, and the consequence of this uniformity will be an intimacy of social intercourse hitherto unknown, and a boundless diffusion of knowledge.
From the book “A is for American” written by Jill Lepore of the History Department Boston University: http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/lepore/excerpt.html
Webster trudged along the streets of New York that day as a member of the New York Philological Society, “whose flag & uniform black dress,” he noted with pride, “made a very respectable figure.” The society, founded in March 1788, “for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue,” had spent much of July preparing for the grand procession, where, dressed in black, the philologists marched in a division with other pen-pushers-lawyers, college students, merchants, and traders. Perhaps they hoped to keep their distance from more muscular marchers whose displays they could not hope to rival. But if the philologists could not bear the weight of a federal cake or pull a half-ton ox, they did manage to carry four symbolic props: a flag (“embellished with the Genius of America, crowned with a wreath of 13 plumes, ten of them starred, representing the ten States which have ratified the Constitution. Her right hand pointing to the Philological Society, and in her left, a standard, with a pendant, inscribed with the word, CONSTITUTION”); a copy of “Mr. Horne Tooke’s treatise on language” (an influential linguistic tract); a scroll “containing the principles of a Federallanguage” (the text of which unfortunately has not survived); and an extraordinarily elaborate coat of arms. Designed in part by Webster himself, the coat of arms depicted three tongues; a chevron; an eye over a pyramid inscribed with Gothic, Hebrew, and Greek letters; a crest and key; and a shield ornamented with oak and flax, supported, on one side, by Hermes with a wand and, on the other, by Cadmus in a purple robe (holding, in his other hand, papyrus covered by Phoenician characters).2 (I want to see this)
In the aftermath of the bloody War for Independence, New York’s philologists hoped that peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt, if not a federal cake, a federal, national language. Winning the war had gained the former colonies their political independence from Britain, ratifying the Constitution would unify the states under a national government, but what would hold ordinary Americans together? Inhabitants of the thirteen “united” states were both too much like the English and not enough like one another. Americans in the 1780s shared very little by way of heritage, custom, and manners, and what little they did share, they shared with England. What, then, made them American? Noah Webster and his supporters believed that Americans needed, first, a national government and, second, a national language.
That any group of people form a “nation” is a kind of fiction, an act of imagination. A common ethnicity, heritage, and culture make this act of imagination a bit less strenuous, and a common language can make it a great deal easier. As early as the seventh century Isidore of Seville observed: “Nations have arisen from tongues, not tongues from nations.” Yet national boundaries and language boundaries are rarely one and the same. Spain is not a nation of only people who speak “Spanish,” nor do all Spanish speakers live there. According to one recent estimate, “there are some four to five thousand languages in the world but only about 140 nation-states.” Much as their governments might claim, or wish otherwise, all the world’s nations are multilingual to one degree or another. Why, then, do so many people believe, and some insist, otherwise?
A “nation” is a relatively recent Western invention. And the idea that languages define nations-that how we speak and write and even spell is a necessary marker of our national character-is an assumption or really an invention that many people now take for granted but that first became commonplace and assumed special prominence during Noah Webster’s lifetime. By 1849, six years after Webster’s death, the French minister Paul de Bourgoing could declare with confidence that “this principle of the division of nationalities by their languages thus appears to be in truth the ruling political idea of our times.”
During the early modern era, when modern nation-states were founded, the idea that languages define nations had a special resonance. In Europe, nations fully emerged as political bodies only when vernacular languages began to stabilize. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books that circulated in manuscript were usually written in Latin and read only by scholars and nobles; literacy among the common people, who spoke a variety of vernacular languages and dialects, remained very low. With printing came not only a proliferation of print and a sharp rise in literacy rates but also printing in vernacular tongues. Over time a single French dialect out of the many spoken in France came to be favored by printers, and that “French” became a national standard. That the people of France began increasingly to read and eventually to speak something that came to be called the French language made it easier for them to consider themselves as belonging to a single nation. They might continue to speak different dialects and even different languages, but the fiction of linguistic uniformity made the fiction of nationhood easier to swallow: the French are French because they speak French.
The new United States could adopt no such seemingly simple solution. An American is an American because he speaks . . . English? In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Americans faced the same problem many postcolonial nations face today: speaking the language of the now-despised mother country. As one American put it in 1787, “In most cases, a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us fewest proofs of love.” Noah Webster believed he had found the solution. “Language, as well as government should be national,” he insisted. “America should have her own distinct from all the world. Such is the policy of other nations, and such must be our policy.”6
From http://www.akses.org/amws06.htm Background of English Orthography by Jim Kanzelmeyer:
Noah Webster, an avowed orthographic populist, wrote, “… simplicity of orthography would facilitate the learning of the language.” He reported hearing Benjamin Franklin remark “that those people spell best who do not know how to spell” which he interpreted as meaning that “they spell as their ears dictate, without being guided by rules, and thus fall into a regular orthography.” The Revolutionary War had recently been won, and Webster exhorted Americans to “seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.” He warned that “America is in a situation the most favorable for great reformations, and the present time is in a singular degree auspicious… Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes favorable to language, science, and government. Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal; under tranquil general government the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply.” [From an appendix to Dissertations on the English Language, 1789. Boldface added.] Those words were prophetic of today’s well-publicized educational failures.
Webster’s youthful plans for a “user-friendly” orthography fell mostly on unsympathetic ears just as his political views years later were unfavorably received. He explained why this might happen: “Thus most people suppose the present mode of spelling to be the easiest and best. This opinion is derived from habit; the new mode of spelling proposed would save three fourths of the labor now bestowed in learning to write our language. A child would learn to spell as well in one year as he can now in four. This is not supposition, it is an assertion capable of proof; and yet people, never knowing or having forgot the labor of learning, suppose the present to be the easiest. No person but one who has taught children has any idea of the difficulty of learning to spell and pronounce our language in its present form.”
Undoubtedly force of habit and resistance to change were factors in Webster’s failure to win support for his linguistic revolution. Lexicographers cite similar reasons for failure of spelling reforms over the centuries: “The new American scene was able to simplify shillings, pounds, and pence, but even in America the spelling tradition has been cultivated with loving and stubborn care.” [W. Cabell Greet. American College Dictionary, Random House, 1965.]