Noah Webster and His "Outlaws in Orthography"

Though the seeds were first sown decades before, the fork in the spelling of certain words between the English of Great Britain and that of her erstwhile colonies, the United States of America, took root during the years of the Regency. It was during that decade that more and more of those living in America began to drop some letters and reverse the order of others in the spelling of many of their words. They were helped along by a determined American reformer of spelling and another war with the mother country.

Noah Webster and his battle against his "Outlaws in Orthography" …

Before the nineteenth century, even though there had been a few dictionaries published in Great Britain, there were no real rules for spelling. Most people, in both Britain and her American colonies, spelled words however the mood took them at the moment they wrote them. The same person might spell the same word in different ways on different occasions, even within the course of the same day. In fact, Benjamin Franklin once wrote, a bit tongue in cheek, that he " … had no use for a man with but one spelling for a word."

Not long after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in the thirteen British colonies in North America, there were several among the founding fathers who wished to do everything possible to differentiate the culture of America from that of Great Britain. One of the means to that end which was discussed was to reform and standardize the spelling of the English language in the colonies. In fact, Benjamin Franklin had been an early proponent of spelling reform while the American colonies were still loyal to Great Britain. In 1768, he published A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling, in which he advocated a new phonetic alphabet by which the spelling of a word would equate directly with its pronunciation. Though this was discussed in some learned circles, it was much too radical for the average citizen and it never got much traction with the public. Within a few years of Franklin’s publication, the struggle for independence had begun and there were other, much more demanding issues which required the attention of the founding fathers, so spelling reform would have to wait.

The man who would eventually spearhead this spelling reform was a student at Yale College during the War of American Independence. He was an avid reader and an indefatigable student of languages and law during his years at college. Though descended from English stock, Noah Webster, Jr., had actually been born in the colony of Connecticut and his allegiance to the land of his birth was steadfast. He was dedicated to the reform of spelling in America not only to improve literacy but also as a means by which to unify the new country.

Upon graduation from college, Webster took a number of teaching positions to support himself, though he considered his true calling to be the organization and compilation of information. He quickly became frustrated with the limited resources available for the teaching of spelling and grammar. Resources which had been imported from Britain and which presented what he considered to be unnecessarily complex spellings. These resources were quite unacceptable to Webster in the early 1780s, after America had won its independence from Britain. Webster had read Franklin’s 1768 publication, and he had also met Franklin on more than one occasion. They had become good friends and had many discussions on the subject of spelling reform. But by that time, Franklin was in his mid-seventies and considered himself to old to pursue spelling reform. Noah Webster, Jr., became Benjamin Franklin’s heir with respect to American spelling reform.

In 1783, Noah Webster, Jr., published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. This was a classroom textbook in three parts, a spelling book, a grammar and a reader. Initially not as radical as Franklin, Webster included only a few spelling reforms in this first American spelling book. In particular, he dropped the letter u in such words as honor and neighbor, which he believed would make it easier for students to learn to both spell and pronounce words. This was the first such work ever published in America. It was clear and easy to understand. For that reason, it quickly became the most popular spelling/reading textbook in nearly every American school, initially in New England, then spreading across the entire country. Webster later changed the name of this text to The American Spelling Book and, known affectionately as the "blue-back speller," it remained in print for over a century.

Despite the success of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, there was a great problem for Webster. There was no national copyright law, since, technically, as yet there was no nation. The United States Constitution had not yet been ratified by all the states of the proposed union, and therefore, each state was still making and enforcing their own laws. Webster, wishing to protect his rights with regard to his spelling textbooks, spent nearly a year traveling around to every state capital where he lobbied for a copyright law in each state. In fact, Noah Webster actually crafted many of those laws, which, for the time, provided a surprising amount of protection to authors. Eventually, those laws would be amalgamated into the national copyright law after the United States Constitution was finally ratified.

His travel through the thirteen states was an eye-opening experience for Noah Webster. A New Englander, he was used to the way words were spelled and pronounced in the northern-most states of his new country. He was a bit surprised by the pronunciation and accents in the middle states, but was quite appalled by the accents and pronunciation in the southern states. In more than one instance, Webster had not been able to understand all that was said to him by some people during the course of his travels. As he thought over his experiences, he realized that it would be very difficult to unify a people who could not easily understand one another. He came to the conclusion that both political and cultural independence were essential if the United States was to be a truly united nation with any real chance of survival. And the foundation of cultural independence was a common language which could be easily understood by all citizens. According to Webster, "A national language is a bond of national union …"

Noah Webster was a patient but determined man. He set himself the task of reforming the spelling of the language of his new nation. He published Dissertations on the English Language, in 1789. In the appendix he included "An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicability of the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation." In that essay, he took up Franklin’s call for a phonetic alphabet which would facilitate uniform pronunciation, but his ideas met with little support among his friends in the intellectual community. Undaunted, Webster, continued to pursue spelling reform. Unwilling to risk the small but steady income he realized from his spellers, he made few changes to that text. However, he had embarked on the production of a dictionary for use in schools into which he planned to introduce his reformed spellings of American words.

Webster used a number of other existing dictionaries as source material for his own dictionary, including Dr. Johnson’s well-known A Dictionary of the English Language which had been published in 1755. But he rewrote or expanded nearly every definition, and he implemented his plan to simplify the spelling of many words. However, by this time, Webster had married and had a growing family to support, so he was not able to work on his dictionary full time. But he persevered in his free time, and though it took nearly fifteen years, by 1806, he was able to publish A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In which Five Thousand Words are added to the number found in the Best English Compends; The Orthography is, in some instances, corrected; The Pronunciation marked by an Accent or other suitable Direction; And the Definitions of many Words amended and improved. Webster used "compendious" in the title of his dictionary in the sense of substantial content within a small compass, thus a concise and succinct dictionary of the essential American vocabulary. It was the first true dictionary of American English. Webster would refer to this, his first dictionary, as his "Compend" throughout his life.

In the Preface to his Compend, Webster included a section on Orthography, in the sense of correct or proper spelling. It was there that he identified his "Outlaws in Orthography," primarily the English words which had inherited their spelling from the French. Webster believed that the Normans had forced their French spellings on the native Anglo-Saxons of Britain when they invaded England. It was his opinion that Dr. Johnson had perpetuated those spellings in his dictionary. Webster considered it his mission to purify the version of English used in America by taking it back to what he considered to be the "original" Saxon spellings.

Below is a list of the main groups of words for which Webster provided American spellings, followed by examples of both British and American words from those groups:

  • -our to -or:   colour, color; humour, humor; favour, favor
  • -re to -er:   sceptre, scepter; theatre, theater; lustre, luster
  • -ise to -ize:   dramatise, dramatize; organise, organize; apologise, apologize
  • -c- to -s-:   defence, defense; pretence, pretense; licence, license
  • -x- to -ct-:   connexion, connection; infexion, infection; reflexion, reflection
  • -mme to -m:   diagramme, diagram; programme, program; telegramme, telegram
  • -ogue to -g:   catalogue, catalog; dialogue, dialog; epilogue, epilog
  • -que to -k:   cheque, check; musquet, musket; paquet, packet
  • Double to single consonant:   jeweller, jeweler; waggon, wagon; bailiff, bailif
  • Drop final -k:   musick, music; publick, public; frolick, frolic

Other spelling changes which Webster included in his Compend were gaol to jail; storey to story; draught to draft; axe to ax; plough to plow and plaister to plaster. However, he also advocated other spelling changes, such as dropping the silent e at the ends of words such as doctrine (doctrin), the a from words like feather (fether), the duplication of vowels in words with two vowels such as soup (soop) and replacing ch with k in words like cholic (kolic). But these changes were apparently too radical for most people since they never caught on and, for the most part, Americans retained the traditional British spelling of such words.

Though Webster had intended his Compend as a basic dictionary for use in schools, its small size and affordable price made it popular with many people. Initially, there were quite a lot of people who did not care for his new system of spelling, and they continued to use the British spellings, particularly authors with aspirations to also publish in Britain. However, Webster was dedicated to the reform of spelling in America. He made it a point to visit printing offices wherever he traveled with lists of words spelled in the American way. He asked each printer to please use those spellings when they type-set anything they printed. He was quite persuasive, and over time, more and more printers adopted American spellings in the materials they printed. As people saw newspapers, magazines and other publications using the reformed spellings, they slowly began to adopt them, too.

The British Royal Navy inadvertently aided in the adoption of Americanized spellings in the new United States. In the early nineteenth century, the British government did not recognize the naturalization of British subjects as American citizens and when a Royal Navy ship encountered an American ship at sea, they felt they had the right to impress any able man on board who was of British birth. This practice enraged the American people, and it was eventually one of the main causes of the American declaration of war on Britain in 1812. Impressment so infuriated the majority of the American public that they were increasingly eager to adopt Webster’s spellings as yet another way to distinguish themselves from the British. By the time the War of 1812 came to a close, the spelling of words as championed by Webster had become the norm throughout most of the United States.

Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was known in Britain by the time the Regency began. It was appreciated by many of those who wished to reform the spelling of English there, but these scholars had little influence, given the English class structure. There was great resistance among the cultural elite of the upper classes to any changes in the traditional spellings which had been proposed by Webster. Most considered such simplified spellings to be quite low class and wanted nothing to do with anything so vulgar and déclassé. This attitude became more deeply entrenched as the War of 1812 continued, so there was little likelihood of American spellings ever being adopted in England.

Due to the success of his Compend, Noah Webster set to work on what he considered to be his most important work, a full dictionary of American English. By 1809, he had decided to abandon Franklin’s idea of a new phonetic alphabet because such "… change would rather perplex than ease the lerner [sic]." However, he did add two new letters, j and v. Up to that point, both j and v were considered alternate forms of i and u. Webster gave them their own sections in his new dictionary, and thus full status as letters in their own right. He had also decided that he had already done as much as he could to reform the spelling of words in America, so he did not introduce any new spelling changes. Instead, for the next twenty years, Webster devoted himself to gathering and precisely defining as many words as possible. In order to ensure his dictionary was complete, he did not confine himself to words from only literary sources, he also included words from the arts and sciences as well as words in common usage in America, such as chowder, hickory and skunk. In 1828, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language which contained entries for 70,000 words, well over 10,000 entries more than any previous dictionary. It was also the last English dictionary to ever be compiled by a single author.

And so, if you have ever wondered at the origins of the differences in spelling between American and British English, now you know how it all began. Though the cultural elite of Britain never adopted any of these spellings, and quite looked down on them during the Regency, some of those spellings have gradually been adopted in Britain since the publication of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language. But those changes came long after the Regency was over. There might be some place for this difference in spelling in a Regency novel. Perhaps the heroine, a new arrival from America, is ridiculed for her peculiar spelling. Or, might the hero be an intelligence officer for Wellington’s army on the Peninsula. Book code was in common use during that time and the hero has chosen to use a copy of Webster’s Compend. He considers it a fairly secure choice since the Compend was known in England but had not been widely circulated in Europe. He has instructed his correspondent to decode any messages he sends from the front or the back of the book, based on whether or not the words in the first sentence of the message use British or American spelling. How else might the difference between British and American English have a place in a Regency novel?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Noah Webster and His "Outlaws in Orthography"

  1. … or of course an American spy might be caught for the way he spells during the war of 1812 [and 1813, 1814 and 1815].
    I have to give a Brit response, of course…

    I have to say I don’t necessarily disapprove of streamlining spelling but I have a few bones to pick with Mr Webster, if his aim was to make for easier spelling,
    I postulate that his object is defeated in many ways as well as improving on the language in others.
    Firstly, making double letters single. How confusing for a child who knows that a vowel following a consonant makes the previous vowel into a long one to be confronted with a word like wagon, which is not, as one might assume, pronounced way-gon but waggon… double letters are important.
    Another bone I pick is inserting z where s does perfectly well. And isn’t as ugly to look at. In my opinion the English language could, as Shakespeare pointed out, be shut of the wretched letter z altogether!
    There is also the confusion Webster introduces with -se to -ce in all cases; because it is no longer apparent bar by the placement of the word whether one means the noun form of the word [-ce] or the verb form [-se].
    I can’t say I like being muddled with story either; a story is what you read, a storey is a floor in a house, not the same word at all. Similarly, one checks up on something or has checks in fabric, a cheque makes it absolutely plain you are dealing with money.
    I like the removal of x. Like z, x is a superfluous letter.
    It does make me laugh though that American English has lost one of the Anglo-Saxon features Mr Webster seemed so keen to preserve; the diphthongs.
    Incidentally I learned to read with a phonic alphabet, Pitman’s ITA, and far from being confused, I am the best speller I know… with occasional dyslexic lapses when writing too fast as may happen to anyone with slight Irlen’s syndrome.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your points are all well taken, as Noah Webster, Jr. was not all that precise in his spelling reforms, many of which are rather idiosyncratic. Fortunately for me, I also learned to read phonetically. I consider it one of the most useful skills I acquired in school. I often pity the young students of today, many of whom are never exposed to phonics. It seems to make both reading and spelling more difficult for them.

      I suspect one reason that so many American printers were willing to adopt Webster’s spelling changes was that in most cases, letters were dropped. When type was set by hand, the fewer the letters needed, the happier the typesetters and printers.

      Since I am rather fond of the letter X, I would be sorry to see it go. How could one mark the spot, or designate an unknown, such as Anna’s Lord X, without it? 😉

      As you might imagine, I am also rather partial to the letter K, which Tolkien, a linguist, wished to see dropped from the English language. He was of the opinion that all hard “k” sounds should be represented by the letter C and all soft sounds should be represented by the letter S. I have spent some time studying his Elvish and Dwarvish languages, and there is not a K to be found. I am ever so glad that English still has a K!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Of course Tolkien was a fanatic OE scholar, and was happy with words like cyng, cnita and cnifu [I think I got the endings write, I read OE more readily than I construct it].
        I take the point, we would be lost without Lord X and so on. And the mathematicians would howl, yes, I withdraw all objection to x, we need to be able to write y=mx+c and all that sort of thing.
        The phonics I learned with was actually a phonetic alphabet made up by Pitman with extra letters like diphthongs and others like special letters to indicate hard oo like wool and soft oo like fool. I have wondered why he did not use eth or thorn for th, but of course, a letter that looks like a combined t and h is closer for transferring to Traditional Orthography. I postulate that if ITA was used in schools and then used again when we start learning new languages, we’d get the idea a lot quicker of how to pronounce them. Bearing in mind how awful the British are at learning languages…

  2. As for another plot-bunny (I love the one of Sarah!), though the Regency isn’t yet the height of American heiresses conquering English lords, there nevertheless could be one American heiress (our heroine) travelling to England to find a noble husband. Being beautiful and rich, she soon has many admirers in London society. One of them, a very meticulous young man, believes to be of service to her by trying to educate her in the English ways. He constantly pesters her with Mr. Webster’s book and generally is beyond all bearing. Our heroine gives him a sharp set down. He is shocked, hurt – but all the same in love with her. Will he be able to mend his ways, give up his anti-American prejudices and finally win her heart? And can he prevent the dishonorable intentions of handsome, dazzling Lord X.?

    • Nice plot bunny!
      Nobody likes to be lectured on what is ‘right’ so I quite feel for the young lady. Is she a timber heiress, the timber-yards supplying the ship-yards and also pestered by people who assume an American heiress must be a slave-owning cotton grower? just to add to her irritation and belief that the English are a bunch of moralising, nagging ranters?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think this plot bunny, and Sarah’s, both have definite promise. But then, I am a self-confessed word geek, who is happy to read through dictionaries, especially the OED, whenever the opportunity presents. 😉

      Nevertheless, I do think that most people who read books are interested in language and words, so I think those plot bunnies do have a wide enough appeal to have a place in a Regency novel or three.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Heh, I haven’t time to develop mine right now, I’m off on a new one now that ‘None So Blind’ is published, taking advantage of Mike Rendell’s book about Philip Astley. The new one involves a young lady whose parents carefully poke her towards a young, handsome, personable man of title and she perversely prefers his unfashionable, sardonic uncle. Horses will be much involved including a big black one called Lucifer. He’s probably the hero.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Love horses, especially big black ones! Great name for a big, black horse, too. I am assuming he is, as they say here in New England, wicked smart, so he should be the hero.

      =^..^=

      • He’s killed a man… and is being given a second chance by his current owner. But I want to use him well

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I am assuming that Lucifer is an intact stallion, and they can be very difficult to handle. But usually only if they are badly treated. A stallion which is treated well is one of the most loyal creatures on the planet when it comes to his human. If Lucifer killed a man, my first thought would be that the man had it coming by mistreating him. Very few stallions are vicious by nature, typically only those that have been severely abused, to the point that they attack by instinct for fear of more abuse. I hope Lucifer does well with his second chance and lives happily ever after!!!

          =^..^=

          • It was by accident… his rider was a fool, and Lucifer landed on him after being crammed and getting thoroughly and monumentally upset. He’s not vicious, he just hadn’t been properly broken to ride and his rider had a better opinion of his own skills than was warranted. He has been given love and training now for 6 years… he comes to a whistle and probably does other tricks just for fun that I have yet to decide. Thanks for that, Kat!

  4. Pingback: History A'la Carte 3-20-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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