Was Noah Webster right to try to rationalise the spelling of English?
By Phil Hall
How terribly irritating it is to be forced into a decades long struggle (35 years and counting) with US English spell checkers. Some programmes enable you to select a preference for British English, but others do not. I have wasted so much time adding English spellings to American spell checkers. The Microsoft paperclip was irritating, but how much more irritating and oppressive are those phones, programmes and social media sites that try to force us into using US spellings. They get my goat.
Misunderstanding the sytematicity of the English language, Noah Webster (1758-1843) tried to ‘rationalise’ the spelling of English. Not all of his suggestions were adopted, though some were: ‘Colour’ changed to ‘color‘, ‘defence‘ to ‘defense‘, ‘centre‘ to ‘center‘.The unpronounced ‘u’ s were discarded and ‘s’ was substituted by ‘z’ for the voiced /z/.
For Noah Webster, these discards were clearly linguistic leftovers; they were the useless bits that remained
Webster easily disregarded the broader question of dialect and accent. He was primarily concerned with standardisation. He was an educationalist.
If you stipulate that spelling should dictate pronunciation, or that there be an equivalence between the spelling and the pronunciation of a word, then you are tending to enshrine one variant of the language to the detriment of all others. So, what at first sight looks like a rational act quickly becomes an imposition. Noah Webster’s dialect of choice was the English they spoke in New England in the late 18th century.
Noah Webster’s dialect of choice was the English they spoke in New England in the late 18th century.
For example. I pronounce ‘daughter‘ as /dɔːtə/, so it makes no sense for me to spell it as ‘dawter‘. Webster would advocate the spelling ‘turnep‘ which only makes sense in places where the unstressed /i:/ goes to a shwa, as it does in Australia, South Africa New Zealand and the USA. In British, Received Pronunciation (RP) the sound changes to /i/.
So, by tinkering around with the spelling system to make it seem more rational, the spelling ends up by enshrining only one version of the way the language is pronounced. Of course this is not surprising, Webster was, ultimately, an intolerant, elitist 18th century American nationalist, with all the unpleasant connotations that being an American nationalist in the 18th century entails.
“Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science, and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.”Noah Webster
Then you have inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the proposed spelling. For example, Webster proposed ‘Iland‘ instead of ‘island‘. But the ‘i’ in ‘island’ is a dipthong and so, if there were a correspondence then the spelling would be ‘ailand‘ not ‘Iland’. Using the letter ‘I’ shows a lack of understanding. It is the sound of the letter, not the sound of a phoneme.
In the UK ‘model’ becomes ‘modelling’, but in the USA ‘model’ becomes ‘modeling’. A ‘traveller’ for us is a ‘traveler’ in the US. What is ‘marvellous’ to us is simply ‘marvelous’ to them. But should the Americans say ‘super‘ instead of ‘supper‘? Are their ‘hatters‘ ‘haters‘?
Noah Webster, and Bernard Shaw after him, railed against the seeming illogicality of English spelling. However, this was partly because neither of them properly understood phonetics in general, or English phonology in particular. Shaw was a great writer, Webster merely a wonderful lexicographer.
But should the Americans say ‘super‘ instead of ‘supper‘? Are their ‘hatters‘ ‘haters‘?
(Bernard Shaw knew Henry Sweet and modelled his character in Pygmalion on Sweet. I wonder if Sweet agreed with Shaw. Sweet defined standard Received Pronunciation in his ‘A Handbook of Phonetics’ (1877). )
But there are reasons why English spelling is the way it is. In ‘Accents of English‘, J. C. Wells – the world’s greatest living English phonetician – gives an excellent descriptive and explanatory account of the English pronunciation system.
Here’s an example. There are rhotic accents across Great Britain and non-rhotic accents. This just means that in some accents of English you pronounce the /r/ sound when it isn’t in the first position in a stressed syllable and in other varieties you do. Which variety do you now choose to favour by formalising the spelling system in your ‘logical’ way?
Take the word ‘hard’. In RP varieties, and some other varieties, we don’t pronounce the /r/ sound after a vowel in an unstressed syllable. But in places in the West country, Ireland and Scotland they do. There is dialectal variation.
Which variety do you now choose to favour by formalising the spelling system in your ‘logical’ way?
Then there is also the question of ‘r’ insertion, it’s a feature of connected speech in English. So, if you said Africa and Asia then the actual sound you made would probably be Africa /r/ and Asia. Should you make provision for that feature of connected speech in your spelling system?
When you take the decision to include the /r/ in your spelling in a ‘rational’ way – as if language were a formal system that could be streamlined – then the /r/ would have to be pronounced every time you used included it in a spelling.
The spelling system becomes proscriptive and starts to dictate pronunciation, in particular for wave after wave of non-English speaking immigrants. Of course you don’t include the /r/ insertion rule in your spelling system – rationality has its limits.
Spelling bees are important in the United States and irrelevant in the UK. That is because spelling ‘correctly’ in the United States is really an exercise in acculturation and a cultural levelling policy.
The mistake Noah Webster made was to assume that where the spelling didn’t correspond to the sound this was exclusively the result of a vestigial letter, or a combination of letters, that indicated the way people pronounced the language in the past.
Having said that, some of Noah webster’s innovations were universally adopted. For example ‘housbonde‘ ‘mynde‘, ‘ygone‘ and ‘montheth‘ were transformed into ‘husband‘, ‘mind‘, ‘gone‘ and month.
But while there is a case to be made for some reform and simplification of the English spelling system, Webster acted partly out of ignorance; his simplifications were pragmatic, but they were also bowdlerisations. Or, as the Americans now have it, ‘bowdlerizations’.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.