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1. Standardisation and Variation in English Language(s)

Noah Webster and the standardization of sound



Les premiers auteurs américains estimaient que ce qu’ils entendaient par « anglais standard » était nécessaire à la fois au fonctionnement et au développement de la nation récemment établie. C’est la raison pour laquelle ils placèrent ce « standard » anglais sur un piédestal au moins métaphorique, piédestal dont tout « accent » - qu’il fût régional (d’une partie de la nation) ou étranger- menaçait de le faire chuter. Ce chapitre est consacré à l’étude du projet de standardisation défendu par Noah Webster et, en particulier, à sa volonté de fonder la prononciation sur un « principe d’analogie ». Le chapitre explique également les obstacles auxquels Webster dut faire face lors de cette mission visant à faire émerger une langue nationale, au rang desquels on trouve la nécessité de dépasser les différences régionales et d’empêcher l’influence, perçue comme corruptrice, des langues étrangères. M’appuyant sur la littérature consacrée à l’histoire de l’anglais américain ou à l’œuvre de Webster, je défends l’idée que ce dernier voulait non seulement standardiser l’orthographe mais aussi, et peut-être surtout, standardiser les sons associés aux lettres de l’alphabet anglais. Dans l’esprit de Webster, si les Américains parvenaient à surmonter l’envie d’imiter, pour la prononciation de différents sons, l’anglais britannique « corrompu » et les modèles étrangers, alors une prononciation standardisée devenait possible.

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1Most scholarship on the history of American English, including early American literary scholarship, mutually understands Noah Webster’s late eighteenth-century project to standardize the spelling, grammar, and pronunciation of the English language in America as a mission to create a “national language” that would distinguish the United States from England, its mother country, primarily through educational reform. E. Jennifer Monaghan concisely summarizes the general agreement found in scholarship on Webster: “His [Webster’s] overall aim was to create what he later called a ‘federal language’ intended to unify the newly created country” (360). While this brief statement may imply that Webster wanted to establish a “new” language, Michael P. Kramer clarifies what Webster meant by the term “federal language” by reading Webster’s work as an extension of Thomas Paine’s writings. Kramer writes, “When Webster asked Americans to establish a national language, he was not asking for a new language to emerge from the new republic but for pre-Revolutionary English to reassert itself” (57). Webster, like Paine, understood “revolution” as a “return” to an older form in its “uncorrupted” state, not as an entirely “new” replacement of the “old.” According to Kramer, Webster felt that the English language had been corrupted during the reign of George III, and the new republic must become an “asylum” for the “pure” form of English spoken before the Revolution, confirming Webster’s belief in the now refuted “transplantation theory” of the English language in the United States. Kramer explains that Webster “is not concerned […] with a uniquely American articulation but with the correct articulation, with being different from England by being better” (48). American autonomy or American difference for Webster, as Kramer says, is “defined not so much by rupture as by a process of selection, purification, [and] improvement” (49). Leonard Tennenhouse agrees with Kramer’s claims regarding Webster’s understanding of “revolution,” noting that in the eighteenth-century language debate the “concept of revolution did not entail breaking all cultural and linguistic ties with the imperial nation, but only those considered corrupt and corrupting” (19). However, given J. L. Dillard’s and Paul K. Longmore’s insightful commentary on the American koiné, it is necessary to build on Kramer’s insights and differentiate between what Webster thought he called for and what he actually called for. While Webster thought he called for a return to Elizabethan English, he actually called for the maintenance of the peak version of American koiné and the maintenance of its dominance. The way to accomplish this “maintenance” misperceived as “return” would be through the standardization of sound.

1. The rise and fall of the American koiné

2In a series of articles discussing the differences between American speech before and after the American Revolution, Paul K. Longmore summarizes the changes that took place in early American linguistic scholarship over the course of the twentieth century. He writes:

Many historians hold a vague view of colonial English as somehow perpetuating Elizabethan English. Their unsophisticated version of what linguists call “colonial lag” presumes this transplanted tongue, changing little over time, preserved the homeland language’s forms at the moment of colonization. But recent historical linguistic scholarship has modified the concept of “colonial lag,” emphasizing instead linguistic change through dialect mixing and leveling—the long-term elimination of the most marked differences among contributing dialects and the eventual formation of new varieties. (Good English 515)

3The result of the “leveling” process that Longmore describes is what American English historian J. L. Dillard originally referred to as the “American koiné.” Longmore defines a koiné as a “compromise dialect” that emerges when “migrating dialect speakers of a common tongue come into contact in a new territory” and the “complex long-term processes of leveling and simplification result in an unconscious selection of features from the original contributing dialects” (Good English 517). Longmore’s definition emphasizes that a koiné may only emerge amongst same-language speakers. Therefore, in order for a spoken language to be considered a koiné, foreign languages cannot assimilate with the koiné language. Longmore draws this major feature from Dillard’s original description of the phenomenon which notes, in addition to the fact that the leveling process is most common in migrating groups with a shared language, leveling tendencies can become apparent as early as the first period of migration (All-American English 50). Also noteworthy, Dillard offers an approximate timeframe for the koiné’s progress in America: inception by the 1740s, completion by the 1770s, and in decline by the 1780s (History of American English 45). What Dillard’s timeline reveals is that the American koiné peaks during the Revolutionary years and disintegrates during the tumultuous decades that followed the war. The Revolution, therefore, becomes a convenient “marker” between the “before” and “after” phases of American speech that Longmore addresses. Eighteenth-century observers in the years prior to the Revolution dominantly perceived American English speech as “good,” “uniform,” and “pure,” while after the war, observers suddenly perceive American speech as a “bad” or “corrupt” form of English. So, although the American koiné is a “compromise dialect” that is perceived as “good” English, it is not simply “good” Elizabethan English transplanted into the colonies as eighteenth-century observers, including Noah Webster, and later linguistic historians mistakenly understood. This incorrect assumption, however, emphasizes the cultural importance of the “mutual intelligibility” of spoken English across the colonies.

4“Mutual intelligibility” is the phrasing often appropriated in scholarship on American linguistic history to describe the ability of people from disparate colonies or states to comprehend each other’s speech. For example, a man from Massachusetts would have no problem communicating with a man from far-away Virginia because, while regional accents existed, there was not a significant enough difference in pronunciation to prevent effective communication. This feature greatly differentiated America from England in the opinion of eighteenth century observers like Webster since it was common knowledge that regional differences in speech in England, at times, were drastic enough that men of different regions were unintelligible to each other despite close geographical proximity.“Mutual intelligibility” also plays a significant role in the perceived post-Revolution shift in language from “good” to “bad.” Longmore explains, “The consensus from eighteenth-century observers to modern linguistics is that whereas deep, geographically based, dialect differences marked early modern British speech, colonial English was significantly less differentiated” (Good English 517). Longmore continues:

In Britain as a whole and even in England, dialects diverged so widely that speech from one county to another was often difficult to comprehend, but the colonial regional varieties were mutually intelligible. Struck by this contrast, eighteenth-century observers described colonial speech as virtually dialect-free. (Good English 517)

5While dialects are most commonly a result of geography and/or class, Dillard notes that this is not the case in the colonies since the “old social order” of England was “not reconstituted in any precise way in the colonies” (Toward a Social History 58). Instead, the first generation of children born in the colonies leveled “whatever dialects their parents may have may have retained” (Toward a Social History 63). So, regardless of the mutual un-intelligibility members of the parent generation may have experienced in the colonies, the following generations, as a result of consistent contact and leveling, yielded a “mutually intelligible” form of English speech. Although various regions of the colonies might still have their own peculiarities of speech or vocabulary, Dillard asserts that “what was developing in the early United States was a group of speech communities roughly assignable to areas but still highly mobile” (History of American English 51). Dillard’s contemporary in American English scholarship, H. L. Mencken agrees, explaining that “uniformity of speech” in America “is supported by the fact that immigration from one state to another has been active since its earliest days” (403). In other words, enough speech contact consistently occurred among the various regions of the colonies to enable a leveled dialect to exist, and the “mutual intelligibility” among colonists suggests a type of speech “unity” that would become significant during the Revolutionary period to establish the mythology of a unanimous front against England in the quest for national autonomy. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I want to jump ahead to the decades following the Revolution that mark the decline of the American koiné.

6Longmore’s and Dillard’s works address one feature of the koiné that makes it particularly interesting: a koiné is a phenomenon that can only evolve or progress up to a certain extent. This feature makes the koiné unusual because it does not evolve indefinitely but eventually reaches a point of completion. However, in the case of the American koiné, this “point of completion” can only be narrowed down to several decades in the late 1700s. Once a koiné reaches completion and levels to the point at which it can level no further, it may simply be maintained or, in the case of the United States, engage in competition with other types of languages. As previously noted, koinés can emerge only out of different dialects of a single language and once complete, deviations can only occur from a koiné and not within a koiné, so the introduction of competing language types cannot be assimilated into a koiné that is already complete. Dillard identifies foreign languages, pidgins, creoles, and “accented” varieties of English, such as Irish and Scots, as the primary competitors to the American koiné. The rise in immigration rates after the Revolution, of course, is one way to account for the koiné’s decline, but this certainly is not to say that foreign speech communities did not already exist in the colonial American landscape. These existing communities, however, were not yet a threat to the American koiné’s dominance during the Colonial era. A “threat” only appears to be present when extended interactions occur among the koiné language and other foreign language speech communities. Dillard explains, “[The koiné’s] partial decline began around 1780, when other influences from the complex multilingual situation in the United States began to make themselves felt so strongly they could no longer be ignored” (All-American English 67-8). For example, as A. G. Roeber explains in an article on colonial Dutch and German-speaking communities in Pennsylvania, German language speakers “seemed to want little more from British North America than to be left alone”, and “they were gratified to find their wishes largely granted” (240). The German-speaking population maintained a separate social existence that ranged from establishing its own churches to its own taverns. Only minimal contact with English language speakers occurred for the purposes of commerce. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick confirm that most German communities “still spoke nothing but German” and “kept largely to themselves” (695). It is not until after the Revolution that Roeber sees German communities become increasingly concerned with protecting their private interests and, therefore, more actively engage with the English-speaking world of the new political order. In other cases, some non-English-speaking communities eventually abandoned their native languages entirely and adopted English as a primary language. For example, Longmore notes the Swedish and Welsh languages “virtually disappeared” by the middle of the eighteenth century (They…Speak Better English 300).

7In addition to competition with non-koiné language varieties and the increasing rate of immigration, Dillard also notes the significance of the nation’s growing size and expanding “frontier”: “The composition of the extreme parts of the original states was different enough by 1795 that extreme differences in pronunciation between New England and the South could be recognized” (History of American English 51). By the end of the eighteenth century, Dillard asserts that “statements about the diversity of American English were as commonplace as the observations of its uniformity had been a few decades earlier” (Toward a Social History 69). Dillard’s claims imply that as the nation expanded, English-first-language speakers became increasingly less recognizable to each other based on increased geographical distances among various regions.

8While writers in the late eighteenth century would not have been familiar with the specific concept that twentieth-century linguistic historians identified as the American koiné, many writers unknowingly utilized the written version of the koiné. Likewise, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, writers who investigated the distinction between “good” and “bad” English or remarked upon the “accent” of a voice essentially responded to the koiné’s decline. These writers generally presumed that their version of spoken and written English was a dialect-free version of Elizabethan English transplanted to the colonies and preserved in an uncorrupted state unlike its fate in England. What they did not know was their English language was, in fact, simply a “compromise” of highly interacting English dialects that leveled during the first generations of English colonization. Furthermore, this koiné was not dialect-free as they imagined but its own distinct dialect of English that engaged and competed with other language dialects in the decades following the Revolution. Regardless of whatever type of English eighteenth century writers thought they spoke and wrote, they unfailingly believed it was “good” English that was superior to the disarray of spoken and written forms in England at the time. Many American writers perceived their “good” English as symbolic of the type of “unity” that was believed to be necessary for the maintenance and productive functioning of the newly established nation. Therefore, the koiné, or what was simply understood as “standard” English to early American writers, was promoted, glorified, and placed on a metaphorical pedestal that “accent,” whether local/regional or foreign, threatened to knock over. While Gavin Jones specifically writes of the late nineteenth century that “there was a strong sense that the dominant language was being influenced or threatened by the ethnic and social dialects that were supposed to reside beneath it” (9-10), it is clear from Noah Webster’s writings that fears of such linguistic threat are prominently circulating as early as the American Revolution’s completion.

9In the sphere of writing, Longmore explains, “Koinés draw upon not only the spoken dialects of the common language, but also literary dialects. Establishment of a standard written language is sometimes the last state of koineization” and the “dissemination and enforcement” of the koiné occurs though all institutions and occupations that involve public speaking and writing, such as educational and religious institutions as well as journalistic and literary professions (They…Speak Better English 303). If this is the case, then considering various genres of writing in the eighteenth century will demonstrate not only the manner in which the koiné was “disseminated” and “enforced” but also the problems and complications that arise from its “dissemination” and “enforcement” in a polyglot society in an era of socio-political turmoil.

10In particular, I am interested in the ways that Noah Webster’s Dissertations on the English Language (1789) responds to the decline of the American koiné.

2. Noah Webster’s standardization of sound

11In The Politics of American English, David Simpson describes Noah Webster’s linguistic goals, particularly in Webster’s early writings from the 1780s and 90s, which includes his Dissertations on the English Language (1789). Simpson writes, “Webster’s early writings are emphatic about the need to try to reduce the widening gap between written words and actual sounds” (57). More specifically, Webster wants to standardize not only spelling but also, and more importantly, the sounds associated with the letters of the English alphabet. Though Webster does not use the term “phonetic,” he seems to call for “phonetic” pronunciation when he describes children “with no previous instruction respecting the matter” as having the most “natural” and accurate pronunciation (qtd. in Simpson 152). Webster, for example, deplores silent letters that go unpronounced, like the “h” in “dishonor”—children, he claims, will “naturally” pronounce the word “dish-onor” instead of “dis-onor.” Likewise, children will spell according to pronunciation associated with the sound of letters—a child might spell the name “Philip” as “Filip.” Some of Webster’s changes in spelling remain part of American English today, such as the elimination of silent letters like the “u” in words like “color,” still upheld in British English as “colour,” and changing the “-re” ending in a word like “centre” to “-er” to more accurately reflect pronunciation. Simpson cites a portion of Webster’s “Preface” to his Compendious Dictionary in which Webster summarizes his case:

The unavoidable consequence then of fixing the orthography of a living language, is to destroy the use of the alphabet. This effect has, in a degree, already taken place in our language; and letters, the most useful invention that ever blessed mankind, have lost and continue to lose a part of their value, by no longer being the representatives of the sounds originally annexed to them. (qtd. in Simpson 58)

12If, however, the sounds associated with particular letters or clusters of letters are standardized, then spelling could easily accommodate inevitable future changes in speech. Simpson summarizes Webster’s thoughts as follows: “writing can follow and transcribe them [changes in speech] in a regular and rational way, with the same letters representing the same sounds throughout” (61). Based on Webster’s assertions, the first step is the standardization of sound regarding the letters of the alphabet and common letter clusters. Such a standardization was already largely in place but deteriorating as a result of what Webster saw as increasing and ongoing corruption by English elite, particularly dramatists and poets who sought new and innovative ways to speak in order to entertain audiences at the cost of perverting the English language. Webster writes, “The Authors who have attempted to give us a standard, make practice of the court and stage in London the sole criterion for propriety of speaking” (Dissertations 24), and he identifies this as a problem because “the practice of a few men in the capital” must be “communicated to the whole nation.” (Dissertations 25). Webster notes that this process calls for a “compiler” to “attempt to give this practice in a dictionary”; however, it is “probably that the pronunciation, even at court, or on the stage, is not uniform” and as a result, the compiler 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” (Dissertations 26). Either way, this “leaves the student in the same uncertainty as it found him” (Dissertations 26). Webster aggressively criticizes British “compliers,” ranging from Johnson to Sheridan, and he accuses them of introducing “innumerable corruptions” into the language. Webster also dismisses their styles as sacrificing perspicuity for melody, claiming “the mind of a reader is constantly charmed from the subject by the music of the language”, and, consequently, “the gratification of our ears” is “at the expense of our understanding” (Dissertations 34). Later, Webster further elaborates on the corruption of the language when he states:

It would have been fortunate for the language, had the stile of writing and the pronunciation of words been fixed, as they stood in the reign of Queen Ann and her successor. Few improvements have been made since that time; but innumerable corruptions have been introduced by Garrick, and in stile, by Johnson, Gibbon and their imitators. (Dissertations 30)

13At the end of this statement, Webster inserts a footnote that quotes Condillac at length, much of which is worth consideration:

When a language abounds with original writers in every kind, the more a person is endowed with abilities, the more difficult he thinks it will be to surpass them. A mere equality would not satisfy his ambition; like them he wants pre-eminence. He therefore tries a new road. But as every stile analogous to the character of the language and to his own, has been already used by preceding writer, he has nothing left but to deviate from analogy. Thus in order to be an original, he is obliged to contribute to the ruin of a language, which, a century sooner, he would have helped to improve. (qtd. in Dissertations 31)

14If, according to Webster, Americans could overcome the desire to imitate corrupt English models of the pronunciation of various sounds attached to letters, then a standardized pronunciation of words could be achieved. Additionally, since Webster adhered to the theory that speech always precedes grammar, a standardized pronunciation must be developed before considering written language precisely because speech will determine written language.

15Standardized pronunciation of the English language is the lynchpin of Webster’s argument for a “national language” in Dissertations on the English Language (1789), written and published in the decade that marked the decline of the American koiné. Although Webster was not familiar with the concept of a koiné, based on the ways vocal disparity increases during this decade, it is still reasonable to understand Webster’s Dissertations, which promote standardized sound and pronunciation, as a response to and, more importantly, a call to action against the koiné’s decline. Building on Simpson’s work, it is also useful to consider the two major criteria Webster identifies to standardize speaking successfully: “universal practice” and the “principle of analogy.” Webster developed the latter criterion under the influence of Condillac’s theory of language. Kramer summarizes:

According to Condillac, languages originate in social intercourse and, with “the assistance of eminent writers” and the principle of “analogy,” move toward perfection, a historical stage measured by such criteria as clarity, precision, elegance and comprehensiveness. The more a language is structured by analogy (a term never strictly defined by Condillac) the more perfect it is. (56)

16While Condillac never “strictly” defines “analogy,” Webster attempts to do so in relation to the pronunciation of the English language in Dissertations on the English Language as well as other works that followed. In “Dissertation I,” Webster explains that “the rules of language itself, and the general practice of a nation, constitute propriety in speaking” and continues:

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. (Dissertations 27-8)

17The passage defines “principle of analogy” as a method for learning correct pronunciation. In the English language, words that share the same letter combinations will share the same pronunciation for those letter combinations, and, likewise, words that share the terminating syllable will share the same placement of accent. While the “principle of analogy” is the general rule of pronunciation, “universal practice” is the “exception” to the rule and, therefore, should only be necessary on rare occasions. Furthermore, Webster’s remarks suggest a spoken language that knows no localized or class distinctions. Since the “principle of analogy” is not invented but historically emerges by “accident,” it cannot be traced back to one “man” or “class of men.” Additionally, no one “man” or “class of men” will arbitrarily be able to decide upon or dictate how the language should be spoken because the “principle of analogy” itself is the “superior authority.” Even the inclination of the “majority” is not enough for Webster, and in order to override the “principle of analogy,” there must be “universal” agreement across the span of the nation. This all-or-nothing way of thinking demonstrates how seriously Webster takes the term “universal.” Additionally, while Webster acknowledges that language changes over time, he still insists that the “principle of analogy” can accommodate such changes, for example, the appearance of new words. Again, the pronunciation of sounds associated with letters and certain clusters of letters is the only thing that must not change about the language over time. If and when new words are introduced into the language, the pronunciation of these words should be based on the “principle of analogy” (Dissertations 29). Therefore, people should easily and immediately be able to pronounce new words by comparing the orthographic structure of the word or letters and letter clusters in the word to words with which they are already familiar.

18In the “Preface” to the second edition of The American Spelling Book (1790), Webster condemns the “promiscuous arrangement of words” in which “the same letters have several different sounds” as well as “the unnatural and arbitrary method of dividing syllables” which “in several hundred words, makes more syllables than are pronounced” (Spelling Book ix). In order to avoid such flaws, Webster’s textbook presents the “principle of analogy” as a general rule to aid children in learning to read, write, and speak well. Also, these three educational goals are interlocked when Webster defines “spelling,” not simply as the correct arrangement of letters in a word, but as “the art of dividing words into their proper syllables in order to find their true pronunciation” (Spelling Book 26). Webster’s phrasing “true pronunciation,” which he uses often in The American Spelling Book, instead of a phrasing like “correct pronunciation” is significant. While “true pronunciation” acknowledges that multiple pronunciations of words do exist in common usage just as the phrase “correct pronunciation” would entail, “true pronunciation” also importantly suggests that pronunciation is a matter of morality. By the time Webster publishes A Manual of Useful Studies: For the Instruction of Young Persons of Both Sexes, in Families and Schools in 1839, he remarks that “there are more than a thousand words, whose pronunciation is yet unsettled” (Manual of Useful Studies 140). Here, reminiscent of Condillac’s commentary that Webster footnotes in Dissertations, Webster places much of the blame on English orthoepists and writers:

Men differ in opinion and taste, and there is no law which can compel them to agree. Hence, some differences in pronunciation exist in the practice of the higher classes of society; and the poets, whose influence in regard to accentuation is not inconsiderable, have in some instances, given a wrong direction to the pronunciation of words. (Manual of Useful Studies 140)

19Later, Webster adds, “The mistake of the orthoepists has been followed by evil consequences, in the pronunciation of certain classes of words in our language” (Manual of Useful Studies 141). Webster’s use of the word “evil” is directly associated with English practices. V. P. Baynack describes Webster’s linguistic work as the starting point in his efforts to raise the standards of “individual character” in the United States. Baynack writes, “The only way to ensure that Americans would behave virtuously and not fall prey to the depravity of Europe, he [Webster] claimed, was to develop America’s own uniquely correct habits of thought and action” (103). Therefore, if the consequences of mispronunciation are “evil”, then the “principle of analogy” not only aids students in reading, writing, and speaking but also contributes to their moral development.

20Webster organizes The American Spelling Book in a way that promotes the “principle of analogy” as a tool that is accessible to young American students, allowing them to put this general rule into practice. The opening section includes a detailed description of each letter of the alphabet and how it should be pronounced as well as the most common syllable constructions and their corresponding pronunciations. The bulk of the book consists of tables of words grouped by like syllabic construction that are specifically designed to “lead the pupil to the true pronunciation” of each word (Spelling Book ix) and, on a unifying national scale, “to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect” (Spelling Book x). Ideally, once a student becomes accustomed to letters and syllables and their respective pronunciations, the student will immediately be able to pronounce unfamiliar words through recognition of familiar letter combinations and syllabic construction. As an aid to students in most of his textbooks, Webster frequently uses the phrasing that a word should be read “in analogy” with another word the student is expected already to know from previous lessons in the textbook or that the student is learning “in analogy” with other words in the same lesson. Additionally, Webster’s textbooks always include passages from literature, ranging from classic to contemporary, that include words/word groups covered in particular lessons, so the student can practice reading aloud.

21The ability to instantly recognize and pronounce letter combinations is the measure of success as Webster explains in A Manual of Useful Studies (1839). As a consequence of classifying words by “similar formation” in American spelling books, Webster boasts, “…our [American] children are indebted for the best popular pronunciation, probably, ever known in a nation” (Manual of Useful Studies 143). Thus, Webster perceives American schoolchildren at a distinct advantage as compared to those trained abroad by the “negligent” English orthoepists and writers who pronounce words “in opposition to…every word of like formation” (Manual of Useful Studies 144). According to Webster, these propagations of “unfortunate” deviations in pronunciation could easily be avoided if the “principle of analogy” is “observed in every case” (Manal of Useful Studies 144). At all costs, Americans should avoid adopting problematic English practices in pronunciation. Webster writes:

There is a strong tendency in this country to adopt the English practice, even when anomalous; our citizens seem inclined to give up our own practice, even when right or regular, and follow the English, even when wrong. Thus, in this country, before Walker’s dictionary was circulated, the word deaf, was pronounced deef, in analogy with leaf, sheaf. But the English have def from the Danish dialect, and our citizens seem disposed to abandon our Saxon pronunciation, and adopt that of the English. I should prefer, in such cases, to adhere to our own practice; for if either party must alter their practice, let the English adopt what is regular, rather than that our citizens should adopt what is irregular. (Manual of Useful Studies 146)

22Here, Webster promotes the Anglo-Saxon roots of the English language as “right.” Kramer cites Horne Tooke’s influence on Webster: “Tooke’s Saxonism implicitly underwrote the pattern of resistance to foreign dominance (Roman, Norman) that informs the history of the English language” in Webster’s writing (61). The tendency to adopt what is “irregular” (English) over what is “regular” (Saxon/non-English) or, in other words, to over-complicate a language that was most effective in its simplest form because of English example was a difficult tendency to fight against in the late eighteenth century.

23As Webster would discover over the course of his career, his attempt not only to fight this tendency but also to protect the English language from growing foreign influence would prove futile. In the 1790s, however, his mission to standardize or regularize the pronunciation of letters through education was a goal he still considered worthy of a fight, and Webster found solidarity from a number of American writers who utilized and promoted the American koiné dialect of English.

24As previously noted, Webster believed that the English language must be able to embrace the concept of “neology,” or the incorporation of new words, into the English vocabulary. Webster, however, failed to remember that such new vocabulary might not simply be introduced and adopted by Americans—immigrants would inevitably be part of this picture—a problem for the Federalist Webster. Webster believed a standardized pronunciation could unify the nation by eliminating “provincial” differences in speech, but he saw foreign languages as a direct threat to standardized pronunciation’s success. Therefore, it is necessary to consider how Webster’s Dissertations on the English Language establishes the groundwork for understanding the relationships among speech communities in the United States, particularly, according to Webster, the “disagreeableness” that emerges in instances of language contact.

3. Domestic and foreign “strangers”

25In an article on the relationship between the American English language and empire, Vincente L. Rafael writes:

From its beginnings, the United States had always been a polyglot country. While the majority of European settlers were English speakers, there had always been sizable communities of non-Anglophones. By the late eighteenth century, over one-fourth of the white population spoke a language other than English. (4)

26Rafael later claims, “It is important to note, however, that this linguistic diversity has unfolded alongside a history insisting that the United States has always been, was meant to be, and must forever remain a monolingual nation” (5). Rafael, of course, cites Noah Webster as the leading advocate for a monolingual nation, highlighting Webster’s belief that the “telecommunicative force”—defined as the “capacity to bring distances up close”—of American English would “conjure a perfect union” (7-8). Unfortunately, the “union” Webster envisioned “would be one where polylingual realities would have to give way to a monolingual hegemony” (8). In Webster’s writing, however, such a consequence appears to be exactly what he ultimately desires for the nation, and he certainly is aware of the obstacles that stand in the way of his goal to institute a nationally accepted and practiced standardized pronunciation. Webster is concerned with not only the obvious problem of foreign speech patterns and dialects but also the less obvious problem of domestic or local/regional speech patterns.

27As Webster develops his argument, he almost obsessively describes regional dialects as “disagreeable” to the “strangers” who encounter them. To cite a few examples, in Dissertation II, Webster identifies “local differences” (Dissertations 103) like the New England pronunciation of “e” before “r” as “a” (for example, pronouncing “mercy” as “marcy”) as a “disagreeable singularity” (Dissertations 105) and the eastern tendency to prefix the short “i” or “e” sound before the diphthong “ow” (for example, pronouncing “power” as “piower” or “peower”) as “disagreeable to strangers” (Dissertations 106). He also claims that “nothing can be so disagreeable as that drawling, whining cant” often heard in the country (Dissertations 108). This “disagreeableness” emphasizes the “unfamiliar” and “unwanted” status of the “stranger” in the late eighteenth-century United States and the ways in which scholars like Trish Loughran perceive local attachments in the decades following the Revolution as trumping any sense of national attachment. Loughran briefly summarizes that by the 1770s, correspondence among states was not only difficult but also “in many ways undesirable to local populations who were deeply invested in a local autonomy they defined not only against England…but against each other as well” (Dissertations 7). Jane Tompkins presents data from an 1805 New York City population census compiled by Timothy Dwight that shows that “immigrants from New England” and “immigrants from New Jersey” ranked among “immigrants” from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, England, France, and Holland to account for the city’s increasing population (107). This data shows that even by the early 1800s, individuals who moved from one state to another within the United States were considered “immigrants,” dispelling the mythology of a unified post-Revolutionary nation. Webster defines a “stranger” not simply as someone from a different state or country but, more importantly, as someone whose difference of state or country is marked by a difference in speaking. As a result of this definition, Webster suggests that the first obstacle Americans must overcome before the nation can be a productive political force is “provincial accent.” In “Dissertation I” he writes:

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 social affections. All men have local attachments, which lead them to believe their own practice to 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 large communities. Small causes, such as a nick-name, or a vulgar tone in speaking, have actually created a dissocial spirit between 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. (Dissertations 19-20)

28According to Webster, the “contempt,” “ridicule,” and “disrespect” that emerge when “strangers” from different states meet is a direct result of vocal differences—initially, it is not a person who is “disagreeable,” but a person’s “provincial accent” that first renders him “disagreeable.” However, this “dissocial spirit” can be resolved, as Webster suggests, through “uniformity of language” or, more precisely, “sameness of pronunciation.” Rafael interestingly identifies Webster’s work to eliminate regional dialectical differences as a form of “intralingual translation.” Rafael writes:

In Webster, intralingual translation is twofold. The translation of the more mannered British speech into the more straightforward American idiom occurs alongside the attempt to contain or “annihilate,” as Webster puts it, dialectical variants of American English. The national language thus emerges from a kind of double translation. On the one hand, the original language is altered, its spellings “simplified” and “purified.” On the other hand, what Webster referred to as the “shameful mutations” wrought by local idioms are corrected and superseded….The original in all its “corrupt,” which is to say stylistic, profusion is to be sublated, while local variants, which is to say all other competing translations, are to be suppressed. Out of this prescribed supersession and suppression, a “uniformity” of speech is thought to arise, one that would underwrite the national security of the republic. Translation within the same language thereby brings about the promise of a lingua franca connecting citizens across geographical and social divides, allowing them mobility and advancement. But it also requires the “annihilation” of differences, effecting the systematic annexation of the mother tongue and her wayward children into the governing home of a single national speech. (8-9)

29While Webster sees the great unifying potential that would come with the “annihilation” of local variants which, in turn, would eliminate occasions for “contempt,” “ridicule,” and “disrespect” among Americans from different regions, by “Dissertation II,” it is clear that this resolution is not applicable to the “contempt,” “ridicule,” and “disrespect” that may emerge in encounters among “strangers” from different countries. Such foreign “strangers,” as Webster’s writing suggests, pose a serious threat to “uniformity” of speech and his vision of a, to use Rafael’s phrasing, “lingua franca connecting citizens across geographical and social divides” (9).

30In “Dissertation II,” Webster presents his observations, drawn from personal experience, about the regional dialects existing in the United States, and he identifies contact with foreigners as a corruptive force. In the more rural areas of New England, he explains, “intercourse with each other is all conducted on the idea of equality, which gives a singular tone to their language and complexion to their manners,” but Webster quickly interjects that these remarks “do not apply to the commercial towns [of New England]” because “people who are conversant with a variety of company lose most of their singularities,” and he adds, “the peculiar traits of national characters are found in the internal parts of a country, among a class of people who do not travel, nor are tempted by an intercourse with foreigners, to quit their own habits” (Dissertations 107-8). These comments promote unity by discouraging interactions with foreign “strangers.” Webster does not advise “travel” because it could potentially involve “intercourse with foreigners,” resulting potentially in the “temptation” to quit one’s “own habits.” Webster’s use of “tempted” is significant because it suggests a danger that may be difficult to resist unless the encounter is avoided altogether. Furthermore, Webster’s comments not only identify foreign language contact as the corruptive force but also locate “commercial towns” as the primary location for corruption, countering the general eighteenth-century assumption that “better” English is spoken in cities than in rural areas or backcountry. Webster specifically cites residents of Baltimore and Philadelphia, for example, as guilty of “gross impropriety” in pronunciation, even in “a class of very well educated people” (Dissertations 111). By identifying foreign languages as a “corruptive” force and warning against travel to metropolitan areas, Webster unknowingly attempts to protect the American koiné dialect that has been preserved in the more rural areas of the United States where people are less likely to interact with foreigners and more likely to remain stationary.

31As Webster continues his discussion of cosmopolitan areas in “Dissertation III,” he elaborates on the dangers of foreign language interaction in these areas. “Capital towns,” as Webster explains, “are always the most ready to distinguish themselves by an implicit imitation of foreign customs” (Dissertations 128). Therefore, Webster praises the “plain countryman” whose “pronunciation has not been exposed to corruption by mingling with foreigners” (Dissertations 152). Such logic is reminiscent of Jefferson’s memorable remarks on the yeoman in the “Manufactures” query in Notes on the State of Virginia: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God…whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue” (Jefferson 170). Webster also views the American yeoman as a type of sacred figure who is “governed by habits and not easily led astray” (Dissertations 13). The yeoman does not travel and, therefore, is not “tempted” by foreign influence or custom, and, most importantly, he, like a child, naturally speaks according to the “principle of analogy” as a result of limited education and lack of exposure to foreign manners and customs common in metropolitan areas. As a result, Webster sees the most “pure” forms of English as preserved by the people of the rural and backcountry areas of the United States. In his limited mobility and his general avoidance of interactions with both cosmopolitan Americans and foreigners, the yeoman’s speech never has an extended opportunity to deviate from the American koiné dialect and thus becomes the koiné’s dwindling remnant. In the same way that Jefferson sees the yeoman as God’s “deposit” for “substantial and genuine virtue” (170), Webster views rural and backcountry inhabitants as “the safest repositories of ancient custom and general practice in speaking” (152-3). However, such a “safe repository” is compromised as the nation continues to expand westward.

32By the end of “Dissertation III,” Webster forcefully dissociates America from other nations when he asks, “But what have we to do with the customs of a foreign nation?” (173). He then identifies America’s “detached situation,” or geographical distance from other nations, as the source of power that will prevent Americans from “falling into the stream” of foreign custom and being “borne away by its violence” (176). He finally asserts that “foreigners view Americans with a degree of contempt; they laugh at our manners, pity our ignorance, and as far as example and derision can go, obtrude upon us the customs of their native countries” (177). The language Webster uses in his description of foreign perceptions of Americans mirrors the language he uses in “Dissertation I” when he describes the “dissocial spirit,” characterized by “contempt,” “ridicule,” and “disrespect,” that emerges among citizens of different states as a result of regional dialects. As far as Webster is concerned, the speech differences among states can be reconciled—but the differences among nations cannot.

33Interestingly, Neil L. Shumsky claims that Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806) was the first to include the term “immigrate,” and he notes that the term is altogether absent from the most well-known and commonly used dictionary of the time: Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Webster’s dictionary includes “immigrate” as one of the five “verbal variants” of “migrate” (the others are “commigrate,” “emigrate,” “remigrate,” and “transmigrate”). As far as the definitions of these terms are concerned, Shumsky notes, “All the words involve ‘removing’ from place to place,” but he adds that “Webster has built a regional distinction into immigrate only” (128). By the 1828 edition of the Compendious Dictionary, “migrate” and all of its “verbal variants” entailed the following meaning: “to cross an international border or boundary; the movement was ‘permanent,’ and its purpose was ‘residence’” (Shumsky 130). What Webster’s Dissertations on the English Language reveals is that even decades before Webster published the Compendious Dictionary, he perceived the application of a term like “immigrant” to a resident of another state as problematic, further contributing to the Federalist paranoia and xenophobia that characterized much of the late eighteenth century by promoting an explicit link between the terms “immigrant” and “foreign.”

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Elaina FRULLA, « Noah Webster and the standardization of sound »e-Rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 25 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Siena College
Elaina Frulla teaches literature and composition at Siena College in upstate New York. She specializes in early American literature and culture.

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