10 September, 2006

Noah Webster: "a live and quicksilvery thing"

the Independent (9/10/06):

Exactly two centuries ago, in 1806, Webster published his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. These days, we think of compendious as meaning embracing and comprehensive. But his definition was "brief, concise and summary", and his dictionary lived up to that. It measured barely six inches by four in its original edition, and contained a modest 37,000 entries.

For the first time, however, it set out a specifically American version of English, even listing some 5,000 words not found in dictionaries of the time in Britain. If a single individual could be blamed for George Bernard Shaw's alleged quip that America and England were "two countries divided by a common language", it is Webster.

. . . A new country needed its own distinctive language, he believed. The Dictionary (and a speller and grammar that he published in the 1780s) were thus explicitly aimed at providing an intellectual and linguistic foundation for American nationalism.

Webster considered that British English, with its weird constructions and bizarre spellings, reflected a country strangled by tradition, pedantry and privilege. In Britain at that time, he wrote, improvements of every kind were "cramped and retarded because the human mind like the body is fettered, bound fast by the cords of policy and superstition". In other words the people, not the elite, should determine how the language was spoken. Popular usage alone was what mattered, he declared, "and every deviation from this must be wrong". So Webster set about his task, to make the spelling match the phonetics.

Out went fuddy-duddy defence to be replaced by defense, and practice became practise. Webster took an axe to the u in words like colour, honour and humour. Musick and publick lost their k, gaol became jail, and centre turned into center.

Then there were the specifically American words he codified for the first time - and not just the names of creatures that didn't exist on the other side of the Atlantic, like possum and skunk. He enshrined such words as presidential and constitutionality that were specifically American, distinguishing the new republic from the old colonial monarchy run by unwritten custom and convention. Unlike Johnson, Webster gave equal weight to scientific terms . . .

. . . If he'd had his way, a tongue would be a tung, and a sleigh, a sley. He also had to row back on wimmen: in the 1806 dictionary it had reverted to women. He tried to change ache to ake too, but Americans didn't buy that one either.

Webster went on writing dictionaries, and, as dictionaries tend to do, they got bigger. His two-volume American Dictionary published in 1828, 15 years before his death, had 70,000 words. But that is nothing compared to the latest Webster's Collegiate, today's standard dictionary of American English, with some 225,000 entries, among them new coinages like drama queen, googling, supersize and spyware.

By 1850, when the total population of the United States was less than 23,200,000, the annual sales of Webster's spelling book were about 1,000,000 copies, and the figures increased yearly. The difficulty of copyrighting his works in 13 states led Webster to agitate for many years for a national copyright law; it was passed in 1790.

After his Compendious Dictionary was published in 1806, he worked on another, The American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which included definitions of 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had not appeared in such a work before. Its definitions were excellent, and the dictionary's sales reached 300,000 annually. This work, Webster's foremost achievement, helped to standardize American pronunciation. Webster completed the revision of 1840 . . .

Susan Howe:
When I started [the essay] "Incloser," I used Webster's Third International Dictionary as the source for a definition of enclosure. Since then I have come to believe that what is crucial when trying to understand what makes the literary expression of Emreson, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, and to a lesser extent, Hawthorne singularly North American is their use -- and in Dickinson's case, intentional misuse -- of Noah Webster's original American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). The Dickinson family owned a copy of the first edition, and Webster, who for a time lived in Amherst, was a family friend. Emily Dickinson herself owned an 1844 reprint of the Webster's updated 1840 edition.

The Birth-Mark (1993), p. xi - "Incloser" is available on-line


& what birthday gift satisfies the lifelong desire of the poet, born in Luxembourg, who describes himself as "living and working as much between languages as in any one," who now writes in English, and translates notoriously difficult texts into & from mutiple languages?

Julius Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch:
The present edition comes in 2 volumes, the 1200-page volume 1, which is the dictionary proper, and the 500-page volume 2, which is an exhaustive index of the (close to 50.000) words arranged by language-group and referring back to their occurence in vol 1. An amazing work — I am ready to pray for heavy snowfalls that would force me to stay house-bound for days if not weeks this winter and would give permission to immerse myself completely in Pokorny. The latter was a strange character in his own right: a Prague-born Czech-Jewish Irish & German nationalist, he was a scholar of the Celtic languages, who moved to Switzerland (he had taught at the Friedrich Wilhem Universität in Berlin until the Germans discovered that he was of Jewish descent) in 1943, where he died at age 73 after being hit by a tram.

In the "Vorrede" to his dictionary Pokorny quotes Samuel Johnson: "Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true." Which is not just a fault to be bemoaned but a fact to be celebrated as it proves that language is a live and quicksilvery thing that can never be bagged, stuffed and mounted. The live body of language can be felt twisting and slithering, lulling and stuttering, shifting and changing in a good dictionary. And this is one of the very best of them. Pierre Joris


Post a Comment

<< Home