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Noah Webster’s Influence on American Language

Updated on September 30, 2017

Welcome guest writer, Susan Bates. Enjoy her piece and learn more about her at the end of the article.

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It is difficult to understate the immense impact that Noah Webster has had on American culture. He has been called an American Hero (“Noah Webster House,” n.d.) and a forgotten founding father (Sheidlower, 2011). These appellations are fitting because every time someone in the United States writes a paragraph, Noah Webster’s influence is seen.

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Family

Noah Webster was born shortly before the American Revolution on October16, 1758 to an average colonial family in Hartford, Connecticut. His father worked as a weaver and a farmer. Noah Webster had five siblings.

The only one of the Webster children to receive an education beyond grammar school was Noah. He matriculated to Yale University just before his sixteenth birthday. He graduated in 1778. Later, he returned to Yale to study law. His law degree was conferred in 1822.

In 1789, Noah Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf. They were married for 54 years. They had eight children, 6 daughters and 2 sons.

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Language Books

During his lifetime, Webster worked as a teacher, a lawyer, and a writer. In addition, he helped to establish Amherst College. His real passion, however, seemed to be writing, especially as it related to the differentiating of American English language from the British language.

Even though the United States had gained its independence from Britain, students continued to use textbooks that were created in England. This bothered Webster. He believed American students should have unique textbooks. He wanted students to learn to pronounce and spell words using a distinctly American style. Therefore, he wrote his own textbook. The textbook he created was titled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It was often referred to as the "Blue-Backed Speller" because of its blue cover. Schools throughout the United States used his book for over 100 years. Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 copies were sold (“Noah Webster House,” n.d.). At the time, the only book that outsold his textbook was the Bible (Sheidlower, 2011). Unfortunately for Webster, he did not make much money from the sale of this textbook. (“Noah Webster House,” n.d.)

In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, titled A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Next, he published a dictionary that would not only revolutionize the way dictionaries were created in the United States, but it would change dictionaries everywhere. This dictionary was titled An American Dictionary of the English Language.

Noah Webster worked on An American Dictionary of the English Language for 18 years. He learned 26 languages in order to complete his dictionary. This two-volume dictionary set contained 70,000 defined terms (12,000 of which had never before appeared in any dictionary). This was the most comprehensive dictionary to be published at the time. Prior to Noah Webster’s dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, which defined 43,500, was the most comprehensive dictionary to be published. (Doll, 2012)

Today, the name Noah Webster is practically synonymous with dictionary in the United States. Almost every adult in the United States has used a dictionary published by Merriam-Webster at some point in his or her life, probably many times. Yet, the dictionary that Noah Webster devoted so much of his life to, only sold 2,500 copies. He spent the rest of his life in debt.

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American Spellings

If you write “center” instead of “centre” or “flavor” instead of “flavor,” then you can see Noah Webster’s influence on you. When creating his language-related works, he sought to differentiate American English from British English by using distinct spelling. He also believed his spellings better represented our pronunciation. While there was initial resistance to changing from British spellings, ultimately, the many of Webster’s reforms were ultimately adopted by Americans. (“Noah Webster,” n.d.) There were, however, spellings that were not adopted by Americans. For example, Webster spelling “tung” for “tongue” was never adopted (Akrent, 2013).

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Copyright

If you reside in the United States, the federal copyright laws protect all of the intellectual property that you create. You can thank Noah Webster for that protection.

During the 1700s, it was not unusual for publishers to reprint entire books without permission of the author. Because of this, Webster was very concerned about protecting his intellectual property. Webster was told that he would have to seek protections from each individual state because there were no federal copyright laws. Instead, he began campaigning for federal copyright protection laws. It worked. Federal oversight of intellectual property protections was added to the U.S. constitution. In addition to being the father of the American dictionary, he was dubbed the father of the American copyright system. (Thibodeau, 2010)

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Death

Noah Webster died at the age of 86 on May 28, 1843. He was buried in the Grove City Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut. Rebecca Webster, Noah’s wife, was buried beside him upon her death.

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Merriam-Webster Dictionary

After Noah Webster’s death, George and Charles Merriam, owners of a printing and bookselling business, bought the unsold copies of the second edition of Webster’s most notable dictionary entitled An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged from Webster’s heirs. They also obtained the rights to revise his work. And thus, Merriam-Webster was born. According to their website, Merriam-Webster is the “foremost publisher of language-related reference works” in the United States. (“Merriam-Webster,” n.d.)

Conclusion

Noah Webster was a prolific writer whose passion for language revolutionized the American lexicon. His concern over protecting his own intellection property led to protections for all Americans. Not only does his legacy live on in the Merriam-Webster publishing company, but also in our every day writing.

References

Doll, J. (2012, Oct 16) Noah Webster, Father of the American Dictionary Was Unemployable. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/noah-webster-father-american-dictionary-was-unemployable/322508/

Merriam-Webster FAQ (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/about-us/faq

Noah Webster and America’s First Dictionary (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/about-us/americas-first-dictionary

Noah Webster House & Historical West Hartford Historical Society (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.noahwebsterhouse.org/

Okrent, A. (2013, Nov. 20) 26 of Noah Webster’s Spellings That Didn’t Catch On. The Week. Retrieved from https://www.yahoo.com/news/26-noah-websters-spelling-changes-didnt-catch-113500287.html

Sheidlower, J. (2011, May 27) Noah Webster, Founding Father [Review of book The Forgotten Founding Father, by Kendall, J.]. The New York Times, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/books/review/book-review-the-forgotten-founding-father-noah-websters-obsession-and-the-creation-of-an-american-culture-by-joshua-kendall.html

Thibodeau, A. (2010, May 14) Noah Webster – ‘Father’ of the American Copyright System. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.thejanuarist.com/noah-webster-father-of-the-american-copyright-system/


Susan Bates

My professional experience includes work as an academic advisor, a career advisor, a school counselor, and a college instructor. I have a master’s degree in student affairs counseling in higher education and a bachelor’s degree is in advertising with minors in English and psychology.

I love to write. Because I have a passion for education and career development, the majority of my writings have focused on education, learning, and career planning. I plan to continue exploring these topics as well as others through my writing.

Among other places, my writings have been published in The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal and on the website BellaOnline.

I can be found on Twitter @susan_bates.


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    • rommelortega profile image

      ROMMEL ORTEGA 2 weeks ago from METRO MANILA

      The world needs the English language, we should not doubt it. I am hoping that there should only be one English language for the world and other languages secondary to it. We should not repeat the "The Tower of Babel Syndrome" of the Old World. While languages are alive, I do believe that codifying English will make this language "orthodox (true and established)" for a very long time. I am happy for the English language. :)

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 2 weeks ago from Ohio

      I've heard of the 'blue-backed speller" but never realized it was written by Webster. It seems he was the father of the American language.

    • profile image

      Sarah Butland 2 weeks ago

      Wow! Incredibly researched and well written. Thanks for the information and thanks to Websters for the copyright protections! Though, as a Canadian, I do write colour and centre, I respect the Webster way of writing.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Informative article. Until reading this, I never really appreciated the dedication Webster had to giving American English its own separate identity. And I hadn't heard about his influence in establishing federal copyright protection. So, hooray for Webster!