[Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Spring 1986/1 pp20,21 Later designated Journal 2]
When Noah Missed the Boat.
Harvie Barnard.[Harvie Barnard is associated with Edward Rondthaler's Typographic Council for Spelling Reform, and submitted this paper to the Society's 1985 Conference.]
It has been a well kept secret for the past 200 years that Noah Webster, our highly respected orthographer, once published a very significant study of the English language, his Dissertations, in which he recommended a complete overhaul of English spelling.
In addition to discussing the grammar and syntactical difficulties of English, Webster's Dissertations included an Appendix primarily related to the peculiarities of the spelling handed down to us by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language, publisht in 1755.
In his Dissertations Noah states: 'I will here subjoin what Doctor Franklin (Benjamin) has done and written to effect a reform in our mode of spelling.' This surprising statement supports Webster's previous confession that 'I once believed that a reformation of our orthography would be unnecessary and impractical. This opinion was hasty, being the result of a slight examination of the subject. I now believe with Dr. Franklin that such a reformation is practicable and highly necessary'. Such a statement from the great-grandfather of the millions of Webster's dictionaries publisht in the past 200 years will undoubtedly generate disbelief for many academics, printers, teachers and others committed to the inviolable sanctity of 'Webster's Dictionaries', many, if not most of which were edited and publisht without permission or knowledge of Noah Webster, his heirs or assigns. They were essentially copies, plagiarisms, taken much as Noah himself 'borrowed' Samuel Johnson's spellings, spellings based upon the pronunciations of those Anglo-Saxons who spoke, according to Johnson, in a 'wild barbarous jargon', a veritable potpourri of all the languages brought to England over a period of at least two thousand years.
Yet in spite of the chaotic confusion of many tongues which provided fodder for Johnson to organize, weed out and standardize, he certainly accomplisht what needed doing, and Webster recognized that lie had an excellent base with which to work.
Still there were many imperfections, and in this view it appears that Webster had the support of several distinguisht writers of his time. With some pride he states, 'In the singularity of spelling certain words, I am authorized by Sidney, Clarendon, Middleton, Blackstone, Ash and other eminent writers, whose authority being supported by good principles and conveniences deemed superior to that of Johnson, whose pedantry has corrupted the purity of our language, and whose principles would in time destroy all agreement between the spelling and pronunciation of words.' Time and events have proved that Webster's dire prophecy was fulfilled, since the best intentions of both Franklin and Noah were never realized.
Somehow the orthography of Samuel Johnson prevailed, perhaps because his Dictionary of the English Language was recognized as the most thoroly researched publication of its kind at that time. Also his definitions and classical illustrations of the use of words and their preferred meanings were outstandingly superior. Yet the Johnson dictionary exposed two serious weaknesses pointed out by Webster and other writers who discerned the lack of dependable relationships between Johnsonian spellings and their sounds when spoken. The Dictionary of the English Language ignored pronunciation, for at that time there were no diacritical markings in use to aid the uncertain seeker for clues to proper enunciation.
As Webster succinctly stated, '...the same letters often represented different sounds, and thesame sounds were expressed by different letters', a situation which has been carried over to the present as a stumbling block to both readers and pupils who are required to accept non-fonetic spelling as an insult to their sense of logical reasoning and rationality.
Webster's Dissertations were publisht in 1789, and this scholarly volume contained the sum of his views on the English language, especially in the Appendix in which he proposes a reform of English spelling. But thirty-nine years elapsed between the printing of the Dissertations and the publications of his famed American Dictionary of the English Language.
During these years Webster's mentor and admired friend Ben Franklin passed on, and Noah, 51 years younger than Franklin, became involved in writing and publishing to earn a living. A change of heart may have developed over this time, and perhaps his involvment with the famed Blue Backed Speller, publisht in 1783, and widely used thruout the American colonies and the new United States, may have resulted in a modification of his original plans for spelling reform. Perhaps it was the outstanding success of the Blue Backed Speller, which became the universally used primer in American schools and homes for at least 100 years, convinced Noah that regardless of its peculiarities English spelling could be mastered if the pupil was determined and the hickory stick was applied frequently and with sufficient force.
In his Dissertations Webster had said earlier that 'America is in a situation 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...'But the financial success of the Blue Backed Speller, which actually ran into many millions of copies - even tho it sold for only 14 cents per copy - could have been a deciding factor. Noah wasn't about to argue with success. The old spellings had been disseminated far and wide, had become part of the establishment.
Yet before achieving financial independence, Webster had proclaimed with fervor and enthusiasm: 'Now is the time and this is 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'.
It is a great misfortune for English speaking peoples that altho Webster was 'right on', and his predictions for the dire consequences of delay have come to pass, we have continued to use Websterian spellings much as they were 'borrowed' directly from Samuel Johnson's original orthography. The result has been that during the past 200 years posterity has struggled and suffered with the queerly inconsistent spellings which have confused and frustrated many generations of English speaking children. Their children, grandchildren, and all those obliged to conform to the spellings declared sacrosanct by our dictators of diction and orthography, are still victims of a peculiarly insidious form of psychological child abuse which has resulted in behavior problems, antagonistic attitudes, academic failure, and a too high percentage of functional illiterates after years of forced 'feeding' in our public schools.
Yet Noah Webster, in his early exuberance of intelligent idealism, had preached a course of creative linguistic development when he proclaimed: '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 the opinions of other nations. In short, let it be impressed upon the minds of every American, that to neglect the means of commanding respect abroad is treason against the character and dignity of a brave and independent people.'
Webster concluded his Dissertations by quoting a letter from Benjamin Franklin, who writes:
'in short whatever the difficulties and inconveniences now are, they will be more easily surmounted now than hereafter; and some time or other it must be done, or our writing will become the same as the Chinese as to difficulty of learning and using it. And it would already have been such, if we had continued the Saxon spelling and writing used by our forefathers,Need more be said? In publishing his widely copied American Dictionary of the English Language, using substantially -the same spellings of Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary (there were a few changes made, such as honor for honour and center for centre), our American spellers became locked into the orthography of a by-gone period of English history. In abandoning his original determinations and common-sense opinions of the weirdly inconsistent spellings espoused by the 'pedantry' of Samuel Johnson, the conclusion must be that 'Noah Missed the Boat' - the passage from an archaic outmoded English to a truly American spelling.
I am, my dear friend, Yours affectionately,
London, Craven Street, Sept 28, 1768.
That was in 1828. Times have changed many things. The language has greatly expanded and modified both as to usage and pronunciation. Thousands of new words have been coined and expressions been developed. In spite of the Johnsonian influence there has been a trend toward fonic spelling, spellings which more nearly represent the spoken language. As Noah said in 1789 - perhaps he is more correct now than then - 'Now is the time and this is the country'.
And again quoting B. Franklin, '...some time or other it must be done', and 'whatever the difficulties and inconveniences now are, they will be more easily surmounted now than hereafter.'
The enthusiasm of the younger Webster and the wisdom of the older Franklin have earned respect and validity. Our problem now is the implementation of a rational reform of our American-English spelling. After over 50 years of orthographic research, a logical program of fonetically acceptable spelling has been developed, computerized, and is ready for use: AMERICAN, an alternative spelling of the English language which is neither inflexible nor lacking fonetic integrity.
Change and improvements, like fashions, are inevitable. Over the centuries, modes of speech have undergone change and will undoubtedly continue to undergo further modifications. Updating the spelling and diction of our language may very properly become the responsibility and prerogative of a national commission of linguistic experts. The fact that the use of AMERICAN, the rational alternative, permits a degree of choice, yet within well defined fonic rules, provides practicality with flexibility heretofore unavailable in any proposed program of modernized orthography.
Because AMERICAN provides tremendous advantages in simplifying the teaching of reading, writing, as well as spelling, theefficiency of public education maybe substantially enhanced. Therefore AMERICAN merits serious investigation and due consideration. Its potential in revolutionizing and implementing communication on a world-wide basis also meritsthoughtful recognition.
Thus by providing a basically utilitarian means for world-wide cooperation thru understanding and mutual comprehension, it becomes reasonable to accept AMERICAN, thealternative English spelling, as an opportunity for friendly commercial coexistence, which is coming as close to 'peace' as may be possible in this age of intense industrial competition.
(It is hoped the next issue of the Newsletter will presets an overview of AMERICAN alternative spelling - Editor.)
Back to the top.