In the late 18th century, as the recently independent states were working to define what America was — after fighting with England about what it wasn’t — grammar books were still teaching American children to speak like proper Englishmen and women. The books taught such formal, outdated usages as the correct verb forms for thou (thou goest, thou wilt) and proper uses of shall (used with I and we for simple future, with you, he, she, and they to imply insistence or a threat). They spelled words like flavour, musick, and centre the British way. They also introduced some new restrictions on the language, such as banning prepositions at the end of a sentence, in favor of phrases like To whom did she speak? And they insisted on using subject pronouns after forms of the verb to be — It is I, It was she.
The approach of the English — and therefore Americans at the time — was to model their tongue after Latin, a high-status language typically taught only to boys attending elite private schools. Unfortunately, Latin and English aren’t a good fit — their structures are very different. Forcing English into a Latin template led to sentences that felt artificial. Noah Webster, in many ways the father of American English, rejected these rules. A true revolutionary, Webster thought Americans should break free from the old country and build a new standard from the ground up — one that reflected the way most of his countrymen actually talked. “As an independent nation,” he declared in his 1789 book Dissertations on the English Language, “our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”
As a linguist and former librarian, I had long pictured Webster as the stuffy 19th-century figure who gave his name to the ponderous dictionary displayed on a stand in the library. But, as I delved into his story, I realized that Webster was a visionary — even a radical — so far ahead of his time, in fact, that grammar and style guides are only now catching up with him. …
Originally published at Zócalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org).
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