x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The man who 'learned' America how to spell incorrectly

I think I could have been quite good friends with Noah Webster, the architect of American English. That is, until he dropped the "u" from "humour".

Noah Webster, who would have been 250 years old last October, has a lot to answer for. That was my first thought about a man whose name survives on the covers of some of America's best known dictionaries. My second thought was that, give or take a little bickering, we might actually have got on rather well. Webster was, after all, a newspaperman and passionate about words. That describes me, too. He was also a teacher and a lawyer, but two out of four is not a bad start.

Had we lived at the same time, the bickering would have begun whenever conversation turned to spelling, or the use of particular words. According to a biography attributed to the Encyclopedia of World Biography - the spelling of encyclopaedia offering an immediate clue to that work's origins - it was Mr Webster's irritation with British textbooks that inspired him to write his own. He evidently possessed "too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children". Indeed, it is quite likely that his use of "learn" for "teach" would have provoked our first quarrel.

Another account of his life, at the official website of Merriam-Webster, the publishing descendant of his work, says his 1828 epic, An American Dictionary of the English Language, had 70,000 entries and was felt by many to have surpassed Samuel Johnson's 1755 British masterpiece "not only in scope but in authority". The only part of that statement with which Webster would have disagreed is the assessment of Johnson's effort as a masterpiece. To Webster, Johnson was "naturally indolent", reports Caroline Taggart in her book, My Grammar and I; he seldom wrote unless driven by need and was therefore obliged to "prepare his manuscripts in haste".

Some of Webster's views seem highly eccentric, perhaps designed more to incite controversy, and consequently interest in - and sales of - his work, than to be taken literally. He wanted spelling to be consistent with sound, producing center for centre and theater for theatre; there would be no place, in Noah Webster's world, for the silent u in valour, candour, labour and so on. That is already more than enough to appal users of British English, but it did not end there. He also wanted yung for young, masheen for machine, reezoning for reasoning, even arguing in favour of wimmen for women on the grounds that this was the "old and true spelling"; no wonder some Americans found all of this a bit far-fetched and took to mocking him.

But the less contentious category of changes entered everyday American usage, ensuring that those of us charged nearly two centuries later with monitoring the use of English in the early days of The National faced a stiff task, given how many admirers of Webster's preferences we seemed to count among our colleagues. For Caroline Taggart and her co-author, JA Wines, Webster was "single-handedly responsible for most of the differences between British and American spelling that survive to this day".

We should not forget that he also gave his country words of its own: skunk, hickory and chowder offered as examples by Merriam-Webster. His role in the development of a "distinctive American language with its own idiom, pronunciation and style" was immense. In repeating that phrase I am to blame, or to be applauded, for the removal of Merriam-Webster's Americanised punctuation after the word "pronunciation", even if it is known as the Oxford comma,.

The legacy of Noah Webster is that even as I typed this column, red lines appeared at various points where the American spellcheck had the impudence to suggest I was mistaken, even though it had detected words I knew I had spelled correctly. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae