Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy – noahwebster.org).

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