November 1993

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Noah Webster's

Blue-Back Speller


Robert G. Koch

"When the widder biled the taters, cowcumbers and yerbs raly stiddily on yender fire by the chimbly, she left them unkivered. I was narvous and afeard they'd bile for an etarnity and arterwards there'd be nothing to dreen, not a spumful left. Where on airth does she get sich idees?"

Today that passage reads: "When the widow boiled the potatoes and cucumbers and herbs really steadily on yonder fire by the chimney, she left them uncovered. I was nervous and afraid they'd boil for an eternity and afterward there'd be nothing to drain, not a spoonful left. Where on earth does she get such ideas?"

This more or less authentic rendering of late-18th-early-19th-century New England speech—often carried into Western New York—is based on "vulgarisms" listed in Caleb Bingham's spelling book of the period. He was calling attention to common pronunciations that presented problems when trying to teach proper spelling. As pointed out last month in this series, even the well educated were often inconsistent spellers, but those coming from less lettered backgrounds brought dialect pronunciations not calculated to help them arrive at standard orthography.

Spelling, normal spelling, was the link between the spoken language and literacy. Early spelling instruction promoted spelling bees but it also helped students to read aloud, translating the alphabet on the page into agreed-upon pronunciation, at least approximately. Then too, as students learned to communicate through writing, they again needed the intermediary of agreed-upon spellings. Hence, spelling books, like Noah Webster's, were also instructional books in reading and models for writing in standard American English. More successfully than any other, Noah Webster, of West Hartford, Connecticut, provided tools—spellers, grammars, and dictionaries—essential to a nation digesting dialects and regionalisms into a more or less national literate voice, and he made a fortune doing it.

During the American Revolution his prospects seemed limited, as he later described them: "Having neither property nor powerful friends to aid me, & being utterly unacquainted with the world—I knew not what business to attempt nor by what means to obtain subsistence. Being set afloat in the world at the inexperienced age of twenty (but with a Yale education), without a father's aid which had before supported me, my mind was embarrassed with solicitude, & overwhelmed with gloomy apprehensions."

Rising to this crisis, after three days of introspection fueled by Samuel Johnson's Rambler, he decided on school teaching, although he aspired to the law and later attained law credentials. He ran the following ad in a Connecticut town near the New York border, according to E. Jennifer Monaghan in her fine study, A Common Heritage: Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller. He proposed "immediately to open a which young Gentlemen and Ladies may be instructed in Reading, Writing, Mathematicks, the English Language, and if desired, the Latin and Greek Languages—in Geography, Vocal Music, &c. at the moderate price of Six Dollars and two thirds per quarter per scholar." And foreshadowing the tone of his school books, added, "The strictest attention will be paid to the studies, the manners and the morals of youth..." He signed himself, "the public's very humble servant."

So well did he design his instructional materials for publication that they quickly became run-away best sellers. "At a time when a lifetime sale of 25,000 copies could be considered the hallmark of a bestselling trade book, the speller would reach half that number in a mere sixteen months after its publication." Companies licensed to publish it spread across the Northeast and early in the 19th century across the Appalachians. The time was excitingly ripe and Webster was its patriotic harvester.

In the introduction to his speller he wrote:

American glory begins to dawn at a favourable period, and under flattering circumstances. We have the experience of the whole world before our eyes...It is the business of Americans to select the wisdom of all nations, as the basis of her constitutions—to avoid their errours, —to prevent the introduction of foreign vices and corruptions and check the career of her own, —to promote virtue and patriotism, —to embellish and improve the sciences, —to diffuse an uniformity and purity of Language,—to add superiour dignity to this infant Empire and to human nature.

His books echoed that chord and his lawyerly skills and the energies of his extended family, under his careful personal supervision, carried these gospels into licensed publication and nearly ubiquitous sales across the young republic. For example, by 1818 his Philadelphia editions had sold 657,000 spellers; the Albany editions nearly 200,000 and those printed in Utica 168,000 copies.

A decade later he published his landmark American Dictionary of the English Language, some 20 years in the making. In 1842 a New Haven paper observed:

...Dr. Webster has probably done less for the English language in our country by his dictionary than by his spelling book. But for the all-prevailing presence of this book throughout our wide extended country, nothing could have saved us from as great a diversity of dialects as there is in England...And this is principally owing to the fact that nearly every one who has learned to read, has acquired his rudiments from Webster's Spelling Book....

A son in law who succeeded Noah Webster in the business attributed to the speller "more than to any other cause.. .that remarkable uniformity of pronunciation in our country, which is often spoken of with surprise by English travelers." That overstates the case, but Webster's Blue-Back Speller was a great shaper of American education and language in the 19th century.

I wonder how Noah Webster would have responded to the Rochester-area pronunciation of A-S-P-H-A-L-T, "ashphalt"?

© 1993, Robert G. Koch
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