Find out why Noah Webster simplified American spelling—and what differences weren’t his idea.
Simplicity and Order
Besides political reasons, Webster also felt that he was creating linguistic order with his changes, and, in thrifty New England fashion, he made an argument that his spelling reforms would save money. In a 1789 essay, he wrote, “Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or one eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of the books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.”
Some critics thought he went too far with his reforms, and in later dictionaries, he undid some of the changes he had published. For example, he had omitted the final “e” in words such as “doctrine,” “discipline,” and “medicine,” and spelled “ache” as “ake,” “soup” as “soop,” “tongue” as “tung,” “women” as “wimmen,” and “weather” as “wether.” These changes were later reversed, although he sometimes included notes recommending what he would then call alternative spellings.
'Program' versus 'Programme'
One difference between British and American spelling that isn’t Webster’s doing is the British spelling of “programme.” According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage, it was spelled without the final “me,” as Americans spell it now, in both British and American English until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the British adopted the French “-mme” spelling and Americans did not.
[Note that the British spell the word "program" when writing about computer programs.]
'Aluminum' versus 'Aluminium'
A second difference we can’t attribute to Webster is the American “aluminum” versus the British “aluminium.” Both Fowler and Garner's Modern American Usage note that Sir Humphrey Davy, a British chemist who discovered the element in 1812, gave it the name aluminum. Soon after, British writers suggested that it should be changed to “aluminium” to match better the names of other elements such as “sodium” and “potassium.” Webster recorded it as Davy had named it, and British dictionaries later included it in their books as “aluminium.”
By the time he finished his dictionary, which took about 28 years to write, Webster no longer seemed driven by the idea of an American language. He had turned his attention to word origins and made arguments for his changes based on etymology. Nevertheless, he was the creator of many of the spellings that characterize American English today. His story is fascinating, and I’m sure many of you would enjoy reading more about his life and work.
Alego, John (ed). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 6 (2001) Cambridge University Press http://j.mp/R1tS7p (accessed September 13, 2012)
Burchfield, R.W. (ed). New Fowler's Modern English Usage, third edition. (1996) Oxford University Press.
Garner, Bryan. Garners Modern American Usage, third edition. (2009) Oxford University Press.
Kendall, Joshua. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. (2011) Putnam Adult.
Kovecses, Zoltan. American English, an Introduction (2000) Broadview Press: Orchard Park, NY http://j.mp/R1tEgK
Webster, Noah. “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation," Dissertations on the English Language: With Notes, Historical and Critical, to Which is Added, by Way of Appendix, an Essay on a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Dr. Franklin’s Arguments on That Subject (Boston. 1789). pp. 391. 393-98. 405-6.
http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/DKitchen/new_655/webster_language.htm (accessed September 13, 2012)
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”
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