Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language

Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language

by Rosemarie Ostler


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250046123
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

ROSEMARIE OSTLER, a linguist and former librarian, enjoys delving into the rich record of American usage and word invention. Her books about slang and word origins explore the colorful turns of phrase in America's past lexicon. Ostler's articles have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Whole Earth, Christian Science Monitor, Verbatim, Writer's Digest, and among others. Rosemarie lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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Founding Grammars

How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language

By Rosemarie Ostler

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Rosemarie Ostler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4628-9


Grammar for a New Country

On the evening of October 19, 1785, thirty people braved the rainy Baltimore weather to attend the first of five lectures on the English language. The cautious ones had paid a quarter for a ticket to this one event. The more committed had spent seven shillings sixpence (equal to a dollar) for the whole series. The lectures were to take place in the First Presbyterian Church, a plain brick building on Fayette Street. Although the building was small—only fifty pews—the audience didn't begin to fill it. The speaker, a young visitor to Baltimore named Noah Webster, was not well enough known to draw a big crowd.

This evening would be Webster's first experience as a public lecturer. An unsuccessful lawyer and itinerant schoolmaster, the twenty-six-year-old native of Hartford, Connecticut, had recently launched a new career—author of grammar and spelling books. Webster's three-part Grammatical Institute of the English Language featured a speller, a grammar, and a reader, the three subjects typically taught under the broad heading of "grammar" in early American schools. They were the first books of their kind written by an American, for Americans.

Although the speller was on its way to becoming popular, the grammar had not come close to replacing the available British versions. Webster hoped to change that. He had been on the road since May, crisscrossing the Eastern Seaboard from New York to South Carolina. In every town he visited, he distributed his books to schools, left stacks of them with booksellers, advertised them in newspapers, and talked about them to anyone who might be interested. The American language was Webster's passion. He believed strongly that Americans deserved language books designed expressly for them.

Webster also wanted protection from book printers who might pirate his work. As he traveled, he registered his books in the few states that guaranteed copyright, and petitioned legislators in other states to pass copyright laws. Catching the legislatures in session often meant loitering in one place for weeks. He had traveled from Baltimore to Charleston in late June only to find South Carolina's legislature out of session, so he returned to Baltimore to wait until it reconvened.

While he waited, he kept busy. There was plenty to do in this bustling harbor town. Almost daily, Webster breakfasted or took tea with new acquaintances, or simply strolled through town with them. At least twice, he went down to the harbor and boarded ships that had recently arrived from exotic places like China and India. He joined the First Presbyterian Church and became friends with its young pastor, Dr. Patrick Allison. With Allison's approval, he started a singing school at the church and gave music lessons during the week. He began studying French.

The English language and grammar were still Webster's main concern. One week in late August when he had fewer social engagements than usual, he decided to occupy himself by putting his ideas on paper. Over the next month, he wrote steadily. By early October he had finished five "dissertations"—essays outlining his theories about language, and especially about American English. Over cups of tea, he read them to Allison, who liked them well enough to agree that Webster could use the church for a series of lectures.

Public lectures were a popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century. Webster attended several during his bookselling trip, mainly on scientific subjects. Americans of the time believed that most leisure activities should be aimed at self-improvement. As citizens of a new democracy, they also considered it their duty to stay well informed. Besides providing an evening out, lectures were a way to keep up with the latest scientific discoveries and cultural trends. Writers, inventors, preachers, and speakers of all kinds took to the traveling lecture circuit to make money and spread their ideas.

No doubt part of Webster's plan was to earn a little money. He was currently surviving on the edge of poverty, and traveling was expensive. At least as important, though, was his desire to influence the way Americans used and thought about their language. The announcement advertising the lectures promised a "general history of the English language," but Webster's real aim was more radical. He wanted to convince his audience to take a bold new approach to grammar—a uniquely American approach.

Some of those waiting in the sparsely filled pews that October evening may have been fellow church members. Others would have been drawn there no matter what the topic, simply as a way to fill an evening. Grammar was an especially compelling issue, though, for anyone who cared about education or self-betterment. Schoolchildren spent much of their class time memorizing and reciting grammar rules, but the books were important for adults, too, especially those who lacked formal schooling. People who wanted to advance in life needed a command of educated-sounding English. That meant poring over and memorizing standard grammar texts. Grammar books were prized possessions in the late eighteenth century. Quite a few households owned only two volumes—the Bible and a grammar book.

Webster started his talk promptly at 7:00 p.m. Tall, angular, and square-jawed, with an erect posture and curling auburn hair, he would have made an imposing figure. He was not a polished speaker. Some of his listeners later remarked on his high-pitched voice and stiff gestures. He spoke in an overbearing style that to many came off as arrogant, but it was really the intensity of fierce commitment and confidence in his own point of view.

Webster began with boilerplate remarks on the value of language study and on the "purity, strength, and elegance" of English in particular. This type of commentary was typical among eighteenth-century language scholars. Soon, however, he was expounding more original ideas.

He spoke of the political desirability of achieving a uniform speech standard for the whole country. This idea was not new in itself—others had suggested it. Webster had an unusual perspective on it though. "As an independent nation," he told his listeners, "our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government." The mother country, he argued, was too far away to act as a model. Besides, it was no longer appropriate for Americans to follow the old world's lead.

In Great Britain, the speech habits of royalty and the upper classes were the preferred model, but Webster thought it was absurd to base a country's linguistic standards on the speech of one group, especially as their usage was bound to change over time. That would be "like fixing a lighthouse on a floating island." Instead, Webster believed that Americans should set their own standards. "The rules of the language itself," he said, "and the general practice of the nation, constitute propriety in speaking."

Other grammarians, in Webster's view, had made one major mistake in their treatment of English: "They lay down certain rules, arbitrary perhaps or drawn from the principles of other languages, and then condemn all English phrases which do not coincide with those rules. They seem not to consider that grammar is formed on language, and not language on grammar." Here he was taking a swipe at rival grammar book authors, who modeled their grammar rules on those of Latin. He continued, "Instead of examining to find what the English language is, they endeavor to show what it ought to be according to their rules."

To eighteenth-century grammar book authors—and the people who bought their books—these were fighting words. They contradicted all the accepted ideas about what grammar was for and how to teach it. Webster had just fired the opening round in a battle that's still raging today. On one side are those who think that grammar should reflect what the English language is, on the other are those more concerned with showing what it ought to be.

The lecture eventually expanded into a broader examination of the English language. For twenty-five cents (worth about the price of a movie ticket in today's terms), eighteenth-century audiences expected a thorough exploration of the speaker's topic lasting at least two hours. Webster sketched a brief history of English, including its foreign influences, and touched on its convoluted spelling practices, another of his linguistic concerns.

At the end of his lecture he returned to the question of American speech standards and called again for a new approach. Standards should be based on the obvious patterns of the language. Where no clear pattern existed, grammar rules should be based on "the opinions of the learned, and the practice of the nations." In other words, standards should come from what most people deemed acceptable speech. That did not necessarily coincide with the rules found in the currently popular British grammar books.

In spite of Webster's shortcomings as a lecturer, his subject found a ready audience. Each succeeding talk drew a larger attendance. His discussions ranged widely, from a sweeping review of the world's languages and how they evolved to an examination of controversial word pronunciations in different areas of the country. Whatever the issue, he kept returning to his argument that Americans should take charge of their own speech.

This belief led him to champion some usages that were frowned on by most grammarians of the time. He noted that while It is me was not considered strictly grammatical, it was far more prevalent than It is I, and therefore should be acceptable. He also thought Who do you speak to was preferable to Whom do you speak to because the latter was never heard in ordinary speech. In Webster's opinion, whom was "hardly English at all"—more of a corruption from Latin. Again and again, he emphasized that American speech standards should be based on America's linguistic realities, not the language of the British king and court or the irrelevant patterns of Latin grammar.

By the time Webster had finished presenting the complete series of talks on October 26, he was able to note with satisfaction in his diary, "The lectures have received so much applause that I am induced to revise and continue reading them in other towns." He later wrote to a friend that his ideas had been well received, including his criticisms of other grammarians. He explained, "My criticisms are new and no person here is capable of disproving my remarks." With characteristic self-confidence, he then restated his determination to change how Americans talked: "I have begun a reformation in the language and my plan is yet but in embryo." He hoped that with more lecturing and writing, he could draw Americans away from British grammar books and toward a more natural form of speech.

* * *

Webster's lectures attracted an audience partly because questions of language use were on people's minds during and after the Revolution. In the heady aftermath of declaring independence, Americans were faced with the dilemma of how much they should separate themselves culturally from the mother country. Among the issues troubling them was whether they should continue to accept British speech standards as the model for their own language use.

In the two centuries or so between the first English settlements in North America and the Revolution, the American version of English had grown distinctly different from the British version. All languages evolve over time. From one generation to the next, small changes occur in people's pronunciations and how they structure sentences. Word meanings shift, obsolete words disappear, and new words take their place. Although these changes happen slowly, eventually they add up. Because American and British English speakers were separated by an ocean, the two forms of the language had evolved in two different directions.

Americans had invented dozens of words to describe their new environment—backwoods, rapids, muskrat—and adopted dozens more from the natives—squash, possum, hickory. New expressions arose and usages such as It is me became more common. Pronunciations had changed noticeably. Travelers from Great Britain often commented on the distinctive American accent, usually describing it as a drawl. They also remarked on the nasal quality of American speech.

Americans were proud of the cultural and political differences that separated them from the old country. Nonetheless, most Americans still looked to England for linguistic guidance. Suggestions for establishing American grammatical standards typically assumed that the starting point should be the best version of British English.

Most proposals took a top-down approach. One popular idea was to found an American Academy of Language that would determine principles of correct speech. Some were already imagining this possibility in the run-up to independence. Language was a serious enough issue to inspire commentary, even in the midst of planning for a war.

In January 1774, the Royal American Magazine printed a letter patriotically signed "An American." (Signing letters to the editor with a meaningful pseudonym was common at the time.) The writer argued that although British English had improved greatly over the past century, "its highest perfection, with every other branch of human knowledge, is perhaps reserved for this land of light and freedom." He then proposed the formation of an American Society of Language, with members who will "publish some observations upon the language and from year to year, correct, enrich and refine it."

Founding father John Adams also favored language reform from above. In a 1780 letter, he urged the president of Congress to consider instituting an academy "for correcting, improving, and fixing the English language," which he believed "would strike all the world with admiration and Great Britain with envy." (By "fixing" the English language, Adams meant deciding on a standard that could be permanently "fixed" in place.) Adams thought that American speech should grow out of British traditions. He explains in his letter, "We have not made war against the English language any more than against the old English character." Adams and other backers of an academy weren't interested in creating a new linguistic standard from scratch. They simply wanted to perfect the old one.

Webster's idea was more unusual. He envisioned starting from the bottom up. Two years before his Baltimore talks, in the introduction to his spelling book (A Grammatical Institute, Part I), he used an imaginative metaphor to state his position: "For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world would be to stamp the wrinkle of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth." As citizens of a new country, Americans had a unique opportunity to make their own rules. Webster wanted those rules to be based on current American speech.

In this he was in the minority. Most Americans relied on British grammar books—the very grammars that Webster had attacked in his first lecture—to teach them the best version of their native language. One of the most popular and earliest to be imported was A New Guide to the English Tongue by English schoolmaster Thomas Dilworth. Dilworth's Spelling Book, as it was popularly called, appeared in England in 1740. Benjamin Franklin first reprinted it in Philadelphia in 1747. It went through numerous editions and by 1785 a copy could be found in many homes and nearly all classrooms. Webster used it as a child. In the small farming hamlet of West Hartford, where he grew up, it was the only book the district school owned, apart from the Psalter (Book of Psalms) and the New Testament.

An even more popular grammar book in 1785 was A Short Introduction to English Grammar by Anglican clergyman, later Bishop of Oxford, Robert Lowth. Bishop Lowth's book appeared on the scene later than Dilworth's—it was published in London in 1762 and in Philadelphia in 1775. It had a more lasting impact, however. Both Harvard and Yale used it as a textbook until the middle of the nineteenth century and later grammar writers borrowed from it freely.

Several of the most familiar rules of "proper" grammar originated or were popularized in Lowth's book. Lowth banned double negatives with the formula still universally accepted today—"Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative." He argued that when two people or things were compared, the second should be treated as the subject of a missing verb—You are wiser than I (am), not You are wiser than me. Lowth also objected to the use of whose for inanimate objects, preferring of which, even though it can result in awkward constructions like This is the book the pages of which are badly stained. (One rule that he doesn't mention is the "split" infinitive rule—the ban on inserting an adverb between to and the verb, as in to quietly depart. That issue wouldn't begin appearing in grammar books until the middle of the nineteenth century.)

Most famously, Lowth ruled against stranding prepositions at the end of a question or relative clause, giving the example Horace is an author whom I am much delighted with. He admitted, "This is an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to," but felt that "the placing of the preposition before the relative is more graceful ... and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style." (Ending the first of these sentences with the preposition to instead of saying to which our language is strongly inclined might have been a mistake, but also could be a subtle way of demonstrating his point.)


Excerpted from Founding Grammars by Rosemarie Ostler. Copyright © 2015 Rosemarie Ostler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Grammar for a New Country,
2. Grammar for Different Classes of Learners,
3. The Value of Grammar,
4. Rational Grammar,
5. Grammar and Gentility,
6. The Science of Grammar,
7. Grammar for a New Century,
8. The Persistence of Grammar,
About the Author,
Also by Rosemarie Ostler,

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