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A Language of Our Own: America’s English and the Influence of Noah Webster


Noah Webster., Digital ID 431056, New York Public LibraryMost people are familiar with the name Noah Webster as the father of the American Dictionary, a book that we all grew up with and still use today.  What many people may not know is that besides being a lexicographer, he was also a dedicated orthographer and philologist, working in spelling reform and lingustics, and had a large influence on the early American language.

Webster began his career as a schoolteacher and recognized a need for a quality teaching tool for children learning grammar and spelling.  The Revolutionary War had just ended, and Webster also felt there was a need to create a national language in America, a language distinct from that spoken in the former British motherland that they were trying to separate themselves from.  Americans were already speaking their own unique "Americanisms," words influenced from Native American and African words and repurposed or revived British English words.  Webster wanted to make sure, however, that all Americans were speaking the same words, and spelling them and pronouncing them the same way. This would be the unifying force that would connect a country that already at that time was linguistically and ethnically diverse.  He published his grammar books starting in 1783, which included a speller, grammar, and reader

In 1806 Webster published his first dictionary, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and soon after began plans for a bigger and better version.  The American Dictionary of the English Language took years of travel and research, but was finally published in 1828.  This volume was twice the size of his last and included Americanisms and Webster's own original definitions for some words.  Some of these definitions, including the one for "to immigrate," would come to define not only the word but the concept itself for Americans.

The New York Public Library houses a wealth of Noah Webster material, including a collection of his personal papers as well as many of his own personal copies of books, including Samuel Johnson's dictionary where he took many of his definitions from.

Also check out these books if you are interested in learning more about early American English and Webster's influence:

A is for American : Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States
by Jill Lepore

The Politics of American English, 1776-1850 by David Simpson

Noah Webster: National Language and Cultural History in the United States of America 1758-1843 by Luisanna Fodde Melis

Language and Political Meaning in Revolutionary America by John Howe


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Rabecca, Thanks for pointing

Rabecca, Thanks for pointing out NYPL's connection to Noah Webster. You may want to cite Neil Larry Shumsky for the point regarding the definition of immigration. His essay, and original research, can be found at: Noah Webster and the Invention of Immigration, The New England Quarterly, vol. LXXXI, no. 1. pp. 126-135 (March 2008). Noah Webster's papers were given to the Lenox Library as part of the Ford Collection. Thanks, Thomas Lannon

Thank you Thomas for adding

Thank you Thomas for adding the citation, I forgot to include that.

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