Quest for a Standard

AS SOON as literary people in 18th-century America became conscious of their own language, they expressed an excessive enthusiasm for the standard language of England. Perhaps this was a characteristically colonial phenomenon—people still insecure in their new culture trying to reassure themselves by snowing that they could be even more proper than the people back home. They were like the country cousin who overdresses when he comes to the big city. The colonial frame of mind bred an attitude toward language which still affects the life of every American schoolboy, and shapes the American accent to this day.

In this respect, as in many others, Benjamin Franklin was a spokesman for provincial America. It is symbolic of the tension within the colonial culture that although Franklin did not hesitate to do some superficial gadgeteering with the language, he clung to its ancient spirit. His unfinished Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling (1768), which would have abolished as unnecessary the letters c, w, y, and j and would have required the addition of six new characters, was as complicated as most systems of simplified spelling. He urged his scheme only in an affectionate letter to his “Diir frind” Mary Stevenson, but before long his good sense must have made him agree with Mary who could “si meni inkanviiniensis, az uel az difikyltis.” However much Franklin might have been amused by tinkering with spelling, he never showed any desire to meddle with the approved English style of Addison in his own writing. He showed the same respect for the traditional English language that he showed for the traditional rights of Englishmen.

Franklin was to be the Father of Purism in American English. The 18th century has been called the Age of Pedants in the history of the English language, and it is at first surprising to find that Franklin, who was in so many other ways a champion of good sense and experiment, was in matters of language among the stodgiest. When Franklin sent David Hume, the English philosopher, a copy of his pamphlet on Canada and Guadeloupe, Hume replied with some criticisms of Franklin’s language, to which Franklin readily acquiesced. Franklin (Sept. 27, 1760) accepted Hume’s objection to his use of such new words as pejorate, colonize, and unshakable: “The introducing new words, where we are already possessed of old ones sufficiently expressive, I confess must be generally wrong, as it tends to change the language.” Franklin did speculate that it would have been more convenient if English, like German, had allowed the novel combination of familiar words. “But I hope, with you,” Franklin pledged, “that we shall always in America make the best English of this Island our standard, and I believe it will be so. I assure you it often gives me pleasure to reflect, how greatly the audience (if I may so term it) of a good English writer will, in another century or two, be increased by the increase of English people in our colonies.”

From this quest for truly English English, Franklin never wavered. Nearly thirty years later (Dec. 26, 1789), in his famous letter to Noah Webster acknowledging the dedication of Webster’s Dissertations on the English Language, Franklin, perhaps with a touch of irony, applauded Webster’s “Zeal for preserving the Purity of our Language, both in its Expressions and Pronunciation, and in correcting the popular Errors several of our States are continually falling into with respect to both.” He then called Webster’s attention to certain “errors” in the hope that “in some future Publication of yours, you would set a discountenancing Mark upon them.” The usages Franklin found particularly objectionable were improved (in the sense of “employed”), the making of verbs out of the nouns notice and advocate, and “the most awkward and abominable of the three,” the use of progress as a verb! There was very little in this letter that could not have been written by Dr, Johnson himself; it breathed the spirit of the Age of Pedants.

We sometimes forget the power of Franklin’s example in the direction of conformism and “purity” in language. One of the reasons for his high reputation among American writers, as John Pickering explained in 1816, was that “Franklin is one of the very few American writers whose style has satisfied the English critics.” From Franklin’s success the moral was generally drawn that to write the language well one had to stick to safe English models. Until well into the 19th century, as Henry Cabot Lodge shrewdly observed, “the first step of an American entering upon a literary career was to pretend to be an Englishman, in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.”

In the later 18th century when Americans described the peculiarities of the American language, they did so, almost without exception, for the wholesome purpose (in Franklin’s phrase) of putting “a discountenancing Mark” on them. The Rev. John Witherspoon in his Druid essays (1781), for example, showed a zeal for the “purity and perfection” of the language. According to him, the American pressures toward uniformity—toward a common speech for all classes—actually threatened the purity of the language, for the vulgarisms of one social class or one part of the country quickly contaminated the speech of everybody, even “scholars and public persons.”

The fourth class of improprieties consists of local phrases or terms. By these I mean such vulgarisms as prevail in one part of a country and not in another. There is a much greater variety of these in Britain than in America. From the complete population of the country, multitudes of common people never remove to any distance from where they were born and bred. Hence there are many characteristic distinctions, not only in phraseology, but in accent, dress, manners, &c. not only between one county and another, but between different cities of the same county….

But if there is a much greater number of local vulgarisms in Britain than America, there is also, for this very reason, much less danger of their being used by gentlemen or scholars. It is indeed implied in the very nature of the thing, that a local phrase will not be used by any but the inhabitants or natives of that part of the country where it prevails. However, I am of opinion, that even local vulgarisms find admission into the discourse of people of better rank more easily here than in Europe.

This search for a “purer” English, which in most instances meant simply a more English English, preoccupied writers on the subject even into the 19th century. Mencken estimated that from the beginning of the Revolution until 1800 more Americanisms came into the language than at any other time between the earliest colonial days and the rush to the West. Partly because of this wave of innovation, American purists intensified their efforts. “It has in so many instances departed from the English standard,” John Pickering warned in 1816, “that our scholars should lose no time in endeavouring to restore it to its purity, and to prevent future corruption.”

Among the leaders of the return to a purer English we find none other than the patron saint of American linguistic nationalism, Noah Webster. If any single purpose ran through Webster’s writings it was to purify the American language; this he aimed to do by restoring it to the condition of the “best” language of the “best” period in England. When Webster was only thirty-one years of age, he published his Dissertations on the English Language (1789), which stated fully his ideas. He there expressed the theory (which he did not revise substantially until 1806) that every language at some epoch reached an apex.

But when a language has arrived at a certain stage of improvement, it must be stationary or become retrograde; for improvements in science either cease, or become slow and too inconsiderable to affect materially the tone of a language. This stage of improvement is the period when a nation abounds with writers of the first class, both for abilities and taste. This period in England commenced with the age of Queen Elizabeth and ended with the reign of George II. It would have been fortunate for the language, had the stile of writing and the pronunciation of words been fixed, as they stood in the reign of Queen Ann and her successor. Few improvements have been made since that time; but innumerable corruptions in pronunciation have been introduced by Garrick, and in stile, by Johnson, Gibbon and their imitators.

Webster was not urging the superior advantage of a new American language, but the superior opportunity here to restore “the English language in its purity.” The truly dangerous innovators, he argued, were the English writers of the later 18th century; Americans must not be corrupted by their example. The English critics who pointed out “corruptions” in the American language had simply revealed their own ignorance.

On examining the language, and comparing the practice of speaking among the yeomanry of this country, with the stile of Shakespear and Addison, I am constrained to declare that the people of America, in particular the English descendants, speak the most pure English now known in the world. There is hardly a foreign idiom in their language; by which I mean, a phrase that has not been used by the best English writers from the time of Chaucer. They retain a few obsolete words, which have been dropt by writers, probably from mere affectation, as those which are substituted are neither more melodious nor expressive. In many instances they retain correct phrases, instead of which the pretended refiners of the language have introduced those which are highly improper and absurd.

Webster was ready to justify even his spelling reforms in this conservative way. When he was charged with introducing novelties merely to secure simplicity, he stuck to his guns. “In the few instances in which I write words a little differently from the present usage,” Webster wrote in 1809, “I do not innovate, but reject innovation. When I write fether, lether, and mold I do nothing more than reduce the words to their original orthography, no other being used in our earliest English books.” He searched for the “primitive etymological orthography” which, along with a cleansing of style, would “call back the language to the purity of former times.” The same went for pronunciation. “Your way of pronouncing deaf is def—ours, as if it were written deef,” Webster told the visiting English naval officer, Captain Basil Hall, nearly twenty years later, “and as this is the correct mode from which you have departed, I shall adhere to the American way.”

In his enthusiasm for the purity and uniformity of the American language Webster grossly underestimated the number of distinctively American words and American usages. He doubted, in his Dissertations, whether there were as many as a hundred English words in use in America “except such as are used in employments wholly local” which were not universally intelligible. Nearly forty years later, in 1828, the year of publication of his American Dictionary of the English Language, he boasted to Captain Hall that “there were not fifty words in all which were used in America and not in England.” Webster’s so-called American Dictionary drew copiously on the writings of Americans for examples, but, as Thomas Pyles has remarked, there was no other justification for calling it “American.”

Yet Noah Webster was thoroughly American—and never more so than when he sought an external (and even an English) standard for the American language. His passion for linguistic legislation was, of course, to have its counterpart in an American passion for written constitutions and for almost every other kind of legislation. It expressed the cultural insecurity of a colonial people. After 1776 it began to express the quest for a national identity.

But how was a standard to be established? As early as 1724, the Rev. Hugh Jones, then professor of mathematics at William & Mary College, desired that a “Publick Standard were fix’d” to “direct Posterity, and prevent Irregularity, and confused Abuses and Corruptions in our writings and Expressions.” In 1774, another writer, possibly John Adams, urged in the Royal American Magazine that where so many people over so wide an area spoke the same language, the opportunities for “perfecting” the English language should be seized by forming the Fellows of the American Society of Language. The Loyalist Governor of New Hampshire forwarded this proposal to the Secretary of State for the Colonies back in London. Only a few years later, after Independence, John Adams wrote to the president of Congress proposing that Congress set up an academy for “correcting, improving and ascertaining the English language.” The fact that the English had never set up such an academy in England made it all the more important that there be one in America. “It will have a happy effect upon the union of States to have a public standard for all persons in every part of the continent to appeal to, both for the signification and pronunciation of the language.” In 1806, a bill to establish such an academy was introduced in the Senate and reported favorably by a committee of which John Quincy Adams was a member; but when the title of the academy was amended to omit the word “National,” the project died. On occasion Noah Webster also advocated legislation to fix the language and keep it pure, but for him the aid of Congress was almost superfluous. In his own realm Webster had become something of a dictator, and, like all dictators, he preferred to speak the law himself. These were only the first in a long series of zealous efforts reaching into our own century to use the legislature or the schoolmaster to keep our language pure and purely American.

By the end of the 18th century, observant Americans had begun to notice that, despite or perhaps because of the widespread uniformity of the language in the colonies, there had not yet arisen any class or locality on this side of the water which was the arbiter of linguistic propriety. “We are at a great distance from the island of Great-Britain, in which the standard of the language is as yet supposed to be found,” Dr. Witherspoon remarked in 1781. “Every state is equal to and independent of every other; and, I believe, none of them will agree, at least immediately, to receive laws from another in discourse, any more than in action. Time and accident must determine what turn affairs will take in this respect in future, whether we shall continue to consider the language of Great-Britain as the pattern upon which we are to form ours: or whether, in this new empire, some centre of learning and politeness will not be found, which shall obtain influence and prescribe the rules of speech and writing to every other part.” According to Dr. Johnson, this lack of a cultural capital, the wide dispersion of population, and the vast extent of America helped account for the barbarism of the American language. “A nation scattered in the boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain but the heat is gone.” What the pontifical Doctor disparaged as “the American dialect” simply showed the “corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed.”

In the early 17th century, when the American colonies were first settled, every man had spelled as he pleased. Orthography, like style or content, expressed the whim and personality of the writer or the printer. It was not until the early 18th century that the principal English authors all spelled pretty much alike; and not until Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) that writers possessed a standard which nearly everybody accepted. It was handy for the rising middle classes to have a guide into the paths of linguistic elegance frequented by the upper classes. This was especially important in England, where language had long been (and till this day remains) an index of social class; the ability to speak and write the “standard” language of the ruling aristocracy was essential to an enjoyment of its other privileges. It is, then, not surprising that the late 18th and early 19th century saw an unprecedented number of dictionaries, grammars, and guides to correct speech. These “linguistic Emily Posts” enabled men to speak and write with unobtrusive propriety among their “betters.”

It would have horrified Dr. Johnson and his Tory friends to discover that the dogma of “correctness” in language—the doctrine that to speak well one must speak by the book, and that to speak by the book is to speak well—would help men of low birth push their way up (grammar and dictionary in hand) into the best dining halls and salons. Before guides to correct usage existed, a man learned his speech as he learned his manners and his place in society, from his father and mother. There was probably no language more casual and relaxed than the aristocratic talk of the 17th- and 18th-century English drawing-rooms, from which such words as ain’t and even hain’t are relics. Before mid-18th century a man did not consciously learn, and did not need to be taught, the “proper” language for his social class, for he drank it in with his mother’s milk. The very idea that there was a single “proper” speech which any literate person could learn from a recipe book was subversive of old ways and the old caste. It is easy to see why this way of looking at language would suit the New World.

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