Friday, June 29, 1855

Webster and his Orthography

Probably none of the scores of lexicographers who have assumed the task of improving our language has done more real injury or inflicted more lasting wrong upon the verbal property of our people than has Dr. NOAH WEBSTER. Commencing with his old Spelling-Book, that memorable epitome of orthography and moral lessons, and ending with the great "unabridged" quarto Dictionary he ran riot through the vocabulary, discarding all logic, analogy, precedent and good usage: introducing words from foreign languages, and slang from no language; laying down rules in one edition of his books only to violate them in the next; upsetting, contradicting, and denying himself and his previous dicta at each new appearance on the stage, until, at last, he left the lexicon in a hopeless condition of confusion. The old gentleman, by dint of long and pertinacious tinkering, and through the fact that he was an American, managed after many years, half-a-century or more, to obtain a favorable hearing from his countrymen. The men to whom, at the close of his life, he appealed, with his great quarto, were those who, in their youth, had studied his old spelling book or his "Elementary" one, or his small dictionary, and the associations of childhood prevailed over the judgment of the adult. So it is that we see the children of to-day using, under the title of "Dictionary," a compilation which will ruin their diction and completely destroy all possibility of their comprehending the language to its purity. What would be thought of a good writer or speaker who should use the word tote in a serious connection, or spell molasses melasses? Yet there is Websterian authority for either.

But it is not every scholar or family who can afford the luxury of the "unabridged" quarto, enhanced as it is in size and cost, by the introduction of foreign and slang words. How, then is a person, eager for a standard in spelling and pronunciation, to decide what one to accept? He is informed that Dr. WEBSTER, the great Lexicographer, is the accredited dictator, and he purchases fifty cents' worth of the old gentleman's wisdom, bound in calf. But his neighbor down the street can only afford twenty-five cents' worth of the "standard" in sheep, while still another member of the social circle furnishes his family with a dime edition of the Doctor's works. Now, no two of these will learn to spell alike hundreds of words in our language! The Doctor varied the orthography of great numbers of words with each new edition, and left behind him the evidences of a purpose as fickle as it was ignorant. It is no good argument to say that his "unabridged" quarto was the concentrated result of a life experience and study, for who shall say that, had his life been prolonged for an hundred years, he would not have given us an "unabridged" folio, still deviating from his own precedent work? It was only a question of time; there was no principle involved.

One man nobly did battle against the Websterian innovations, and, by publication of spelling-books and dictionaries closely adherent to the best models, did much to conserve the poor abused language. But LYMAN COBB could not live in perennial youth, and since his day, "unabridged" license has been given to WEBSTER's injurious innovations. We do not know where it will end, but the prospect is a gloomy one for a lover of his native tongue.

The following example, prepared by LYMAN COBB many years ago, shows in a small compass, some of the innovations of "our great Lexicographer." The extract had been long forgotten, when some correspondent of the Home Journal found it, as he says, pasted into a copy of Mr. WEBSTER's dictionary, which had belonged to a distinguished American statesman, deceased. The owner had written over it: "A specimen of WEBSTER's orthography, (in part,) selected from his various dictionaries, five in number and no two alike."

"A groop of neger women, black as sut, were told to soe and hold their tungs, but insted of soeing, they left their thred, regardless of threts, and went to the theater, where they saw as grotesk an exhibition as you can imagin, to wit, a traveler, a plow, a porpess, a zeber, and a lepard from an eastern iland; also a ranedeer, a woodchuck, a racoon, a weesel, and a shammy; likewise an ax, a gillotin, a chimist with specimens of granit and a hucster with his cags and fassets; and, above all, a specter rising from a sepulcher - a most redoutable fantom, full seven feet in highth - his color of ocher, a hagard face, eyes without luster, a lether cap crouded with ribins and fethers, a somber cloke, an opake septer in one hand, a marvelous saber or cimetar in the other; and with these accouterments he vanted his valor, and thretened to massacer every hypocrit and libertin present: whereat the neger wimmen were frightened, and ran home. But for this hainous misbehavior their steddy superior, being at no loss to determin on the proper disciplin, in his suveran pleasure tied them up by the thums; and with the vigor requisit to punish such maneuvers, denied them their maiz and melasses."