A New Language for America
Noah Webster was born in Harford Connecticut in 1758. He and his two brothers and two sisters helped his mother and father on their farm, and with making food and clothing for the family. Education in colonial America was not for everyone, but Noah wanted to learn, so his family supported his attending Yale University, not far away from home, when he was sixteen.
After he graduated from Yale he became a schoolmaster in Hartford, and then studied law. During the American Revolution he was an ardent patriot, and a member of the Connecticut Militia. Eventually he married well, and was the father of eight children.
But education, words, and language were always the center of Noah Webster’s life. After the United States became an independent county he determined to improve the slipshod system of education that was being used at the time – much of it dependent on textbooks imported from England.
Many citizens believed their new country should have new laws, new customs, and new ways of governing, Webster believed Americans should have a new, American, language. A language and system of spelling that would be easier for children (and adults, many of whom were illiterate) to learn.
In 1783 he wrote his textbook “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.” It had a blue cover, and was the first edition of what generations of children throughout the nineteenth century called the “blue-backed speller,” or simply “Webster’s Speller.” He also wrote a grammar and a reader – but it was the spelling book that was his best-seller.
Many American families in the nineteenth century who could afford little had only two books: the Bible, and Webster’s speller. Those two books went west with the wagon trains, and went around the world on American vessels.
The speller listed words by syllable, from simplest to hardest, and used “American spelling.” Webster changed the word “colour” to “color” and “musick” to “music” He also included American words, like “squash” and “pumpkin”.
And that led him to his next major work. In 1806 Webster published “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.” If you want to see how Americans in the late 18th and early 19th century really used words, this is the book to look at.
But it was only the beginning of Webster’s major lifework. His “American Dictionary of the English Language”, published in 1828, took him twenty more years to write, but was the basis for every Webster’s dictionary in every library today.