Spelling Identity

a black and white painting of a man sitting in a chair and holding a piece of paperI recently found a copy of Noah Webster’s Elementary Spelling book, a version apparently published in the 1840’s, that includes an intriguing discussion of spelling. A primary motivation that informed Webster’s work on the spelling book was generating national unity through consistent pronunciation and spelling. Webster’s work included differentiating American English from British English, as his book appears to be the source for the absence of a “u” in words such as color and favor and spelling “center” with an “er” instead of an “re”.

After the title page, the book has a section entitled “National Language” that includes the following:

 In the early days of our independence, much was done to promote this object [uniform national language], by Webster’s Spelling Book; for the principal instrument of creating and preserving uniformity, must be a spelling book which is used by all classes of children. This book has more influence than all others, on a national language; and the effects of the general use of Webster’s book, for more than thirty years, are visible at this day, in the remarkable uniformity of pronunciation among the citizens of the United States. This fact has been remarked by foreigners in the speeches of members of Congress. Within the last twenty years, great inroads have been made on this plan of uniformity, but a variety of spelling books, which have been published, and are more or less used in particular parts of the country. All these books are formed on the general plan of Webster’s, but with some differences in arrangement, spelling, and pronunciation, which tend to impair or destroy that plan.

Such discussion illustrates the precarious nature of the presumed unity, the “imagined community” of the nation (to borrow Benedict Andersen’s title). That unity is not something that happens automatically. Rather, it requires significant work and can be threatened by competing spelling books that allow regional variation. Of course, the degree to which a desire to promote this spelling book over others inspired these assertions of national unity for this printing is harder to determine.

But the issue extends further. One way of defining a people, whether termed a nation (which may not be contiguous with a nation-state) or an ethnic group, is by a common language. While that provides a seeming natural division of humanity, grouping together those who can understand one another through language, the commonality of language is not something that just happens naturally. It requires work, often intentional work, to construct and maintain that commonality that generates the notion of being an ethnic group or nation.

Image of engraving inscribed “Morse Pinx, Kellogg Sc”, and noted “engraved for the quarto edition of Webster’s American Dictionary” [Public domain from the holding of the University of Manitoba], via Wikimedia Commons

One Reply to “Spelling Identity”

  1. I am continually amazed by the number of Americans who have no idea that other English speakers say Zed for the name of the last letter of the alphabet and that they alone (and those influence by American English) say Zee. So, yes, it works that well if you put the work in…

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