By this time the speakers of English in America had no book which they could dependably use as a guide in matters of American spelling and usage. Very few books were written and published in America during the first two decades of the century.
According to an American commentator mentioned in Crystal’s encyclopedia, about a thousand books were published in Britain every year with its population of 18 million whereas America with its population of about six million produced only about 20 books every year.
Until the first few years of the nineteenth century, America had not produced much of worthwhile literature either. British novelists like Walter Scott were the only source of popular reading material and millions of copies of British novels were printed and sold in America, there being no American novels to be used as an alternative source of literary entertainment.
The time was now ripe for those who had made America their homeland to rebel against this excessive dependence on Britain. As in the field of politics and in the field of literature, so in matters of the use of English the Americans wanted to have their own identity. Public figures like Charles J.
Ingersoll raised a voice of protest against the then American dependence on Britain and even poets like Walt Whitman started advocating the idea of a literature free from European influences. America’s voice was loud and clear. It wanted to be recognized as a separate identity. Amongst other things it wanted American English to assert its personality describable in terms of its own norms and conventions.
In the field of literature this voice gave rise to eminent American writers like Washington Irving (1783-1859), James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Emily Dickinson (1830- 1886). Because of their writings, America could, towards the end of the century, rightfully claim to have a great literature of its own.
It was Noah Webster (1758-1843), who did what the spirit of America required to be done about the English language; he boldly proposed the establishment and recognition of an American standard. He started writing towards the end of the eighteenth century and published his Dissertation on the English Language in 1789.
In this book he enthusiastically pleaded for a distinctively American standard and said that it was a matter of national honour and dignity for an “independent nation … to have a system of our own, in language as well as government”. He rejected the idea of Britain being followed as the model for the use of English in America and in the preface to the first part of his book Grammatical Institute, he said the following:
Europe is grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny…. For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxim of the world, would be to stamp the wrinkles of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth and to plant the seeds of decay in a vigorous constitution.
Emphasizing his idea of a complete separation of standard from Britain, Webster made the following observations in his book, Dissertations on the English Language:
Great Britain, whose children we are, should no longer be our standard, for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. But even if it were not so, she is at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue.
The distance that Webster referred to in this extract was in fact not the physical but the psychological distance. In matters of usage as perhaps in most other spheres of life, America as a nation now wanted to distance itself from Britain and to emerge as a new and powerful force in its own right.
As part of that new wave of American nationalism, Webster proposed that American English should have its own spelling because in his considered opinion “a difference between the English orthography and the American is an object of vast political consequence”.
As a teacher he had realized that the textbooks in America lacked a clear American perspective and so during 1783-1785 he published a book called A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.
The book was in three parts. The first part of the book was a book of American spelling, the second part was a book of grammar and the third part was a reader. Never in the history of textbooks anywhere in the world did a textbook prove to be as great a success as this one did. During the first half of the nineteenth century it was revised several times and was reprinted 250 times.
As Crystal has pointed out in his Encyclopedia of the English Language “undoubtedly the most popular textbook ever published, it was selling a million copies a year in the 1850s—and in a total US population of only c. 23 million”.
As is evident from the names of the three parts of this book, Webster was trying to do single-handedly what both Dr. Johnson and Lowth had done in the eighteenth century for standardizing the English language in Britain. His contribution to the grammar of American English, however, did not prove to be as much of a lasting influence as his proposals for spelling reforms did.
As Webster is likely to be remembered more for his spelling reforms than for anything else, it may be pointed out here that his proposals for spelling passed through three distinct stages. His initial proposals were of a moderate and conservative nature.
During these early years he advocated the British norm of spelling as suggested by Dr. Johnson. During the second stage, he suggested a phonetic spelling saying that, as far as possible, words should be spelt as they are pronounced.
Similar suggestions for a phonetic spelling were made earlier by spelling reformers in Britain during the eighteenth century and were rejected by the public. Webster’s suggestions for a phonetic spelling turned out to be a similar failure. Webster had not learnt a lesson from the British experience but he did learn a lesson from his own.
He abandoned his plan for a phonetic spelling and proposed another framework for rationalizing English spelling. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary was characterized by some apparent and indefensible inconsistencies.
He spelt words like doctor, editor, tailor, tutor, factor, and rector without the letter u in them but spelt words like odour, neighbour, honour, fervour, vapour, rumour and splendour with the letter u. Webster rationalized the spelling of such words and proposed that all such words should be spelt without the letter u in them.
Some of the other important changes in spelling proposed by Webster were the following:
(i) That -re at the end of words like centre, and theatre should be written as -er.
(ii) That -que at the end of words like cheque should be written as -ck.
(iii) That in the case of verbs like travel in which the stress is on the initial syllable, the final consonant should not be doubled when the suffix -ing is added to that verb. The verb travel, for example, should in its -ing form be written as traveling and not as travelling.
(iv) That words like offence, defence and practice, i.e., words which are written with s when a suffix is added to them (e.g., offensive, defensive, practising) should be written with -se and not -ce at their end.
(v) That the final letter at the end of words like definite, grieve and examine should be deleted.
(vi) That the silent letter in words like leather and weather should be dropped and the word leather should, for example, be written as lether.
Most of these proposals were accepted and have now become characteristic features of American English. For reasons which are not very clear, some of his proposals, e.g., the last two of the proposals mentioned here, were not accepted and are now only matters of historical interest.