Culture by the Book: The Spelling Fetish

THE MOST INFLUENTIAL American writer on language was Noah Webster, Spelling-Master to America. The colossal popularity of his spellers—they had sold over sixty millions before the end of the 19th century—was both a symptom and a symbol of the mobility of American society. Webster’s American Spelling Book, “containing an easy Standard of Pronunciation,” appeared in 1789, but the demand it met, as Webster himself noted, had long been there.

In America there flourished a ritual or game which popularized the effort to make “proper” speech accessible to all. This was the spelling-bee; and the word “bee” in this sense was appropriately an Americanism. In this public ceremony contestants and audience bore witness that there was no secret about how to speak or write the most “correct” language of the community and hence that the linguistic upper class was open to all. The spelling-bee was already familiar, especially in New England, in the time of the Revolution. As early as 1750, Franklin had proposed a public competitive game of spelling; by the latter half of the 18th century spelling matches had become well-established in the schools. In rural communities and on the western frontier, where spelling was especially valued as a symbol of culture, the institution took on a new life in the 19th century, described, for example, in Bret Harte’s “Spelling Bee at Angels.” There we learn from Truthful James:

Thar’s a new game down in Frisco, that ez far ez I can see Beats euchre, poker, and van-toon, they calls the “Spellin’ Bee.”

At the particular bee which Bret Harte describes, all went peacefully—even through the spelling of separate, parallel, and rhythm—but the miners finally found it necessary to settle the spelling of gneiss by a fight with bowie knives.

Emphasis on “rules” of proper speaking and writing profoundly influenced the whole American attitude toward pronunciation. It explains what is still perhaps the most important distinction between English and American pronunciation, the American tendency toward “spelling-pronunciation.” Very early, Americans began trying to discover how a word “ought” to be pronounced by seeing how it was spelled. This seemed to provide a ready standard of pronunciation in a land without a cultural capital or a ruling intellectual aristocracy.

We have become so accustomed to our own equation of spelling and pronunciation that we find it hard to imagine that a tendency to pronounce by custom rather than by spelling may have been an older and more “literary” tradition. Yet that seems to have been the case. The casual way of pronouncing which followed caste and custom and not the spelling-book had long prevailed in the English of England.

Our insistent spelling-pronunciation shows itself in our habit of preserving the full value of syllables. In long words like secretary, explanatory, laboratory, and cemetery, we preserve the full value of all, including the next-to-last syllable, while the English almost drop that syllable and say “secretary,” “explanat’ry, “laborat’ry,” and “cemet’ry.” These are only a few examples of the American insistence on giving every spelled syllable its fully pronounced due. Some of these cases turn out to be historically complicated by the fact that the secondary accent we have preserved in the next-to-last syllable of a word like secretary seems also to have been characteristic of 17th- and 18th-century spoken English. But while in England these syllables have tended to become lost, in America they have been studiously preserved. This would not alter the argument but would simply show that American spelling-pronunciation, like much else in our speech, is conservative. Our deference to spelling as a guide to pronunciation has been so strong that we have kept alive here ways of speech which soon died in England. The ritual of the spelling-bee also tended to preserve the full pronounced values of syllables, and to promote literalness in pronunciation. In the early days, spelling was taught by reading a word aloud from the Speller letter by letter and syllable by syllable: “o, r—or; d, i—di; n, a—na; r, y—ry; ordinary.” Students who had been taught the language in this fashion (often under the incentive of team competition) would be apt to remain careful, deliberate, and literal in pronunciation for the rest of their lives. Our weakness for spelling-pronunciation affected the pronunciation of proper names, and especially the names of places. In England these had a purely traditional and casual pronunciation, but Americans who hear Worcester pronounced Wooster are apt to spell it that way; and Birmingham is fully and carefully pronounced, never in the elided English manner.

The “Dictatorship of the Schoolmarm,” often attacked by sophisticated students, has dampened our ebullience and ingenuity. But the Schoolmarm, like her predecessor the Schoolmaster, by declaring teachable rules of language has helped dissolve class distinctions and has kept one more avenue open in a mobile society. Who could have predicted that a free and equalitarian society would be promoted by a pedantically precise standard of language?

H. L. Mencken has summed up the wider meaning of the special precision of American speech:

It may be described briefly as the influence of a class but lately risen in the social scale and hence a bit unsure of itself—a class intensely eager to avoid giving away its vulgar origin by its speech habits…. Precision in speech thus became the hall-mark of those who had but recently arrived. Obviously, the number of those who have but recently arrived has always been greater in the United States than in England, not only among the aristocracy of wealth and fashion but also among the intelligentsia. The average American schoolmarm, the chief guardian of linguistic niceness in the Republic, does not come from the class that has a tradition of culture behind it, but from the class of small farmers and city clerks and workmen. This is true, I believe, even of the average American college teacher. Such persons do not advocate and practise precision in speech on logical grounds alone; they are also moved, plainly enough, by the fact that it tends to conceal their own cultural insecurity. From them come most of the gratuitous rules and regulations that afflict schoolboys and harass the writers of the country. They are the chief discoverers and denouncers of ‘bad English’ in the books of such men as Whitman, Mark Twain and Howells. But it would be a mistake to think of their influence as wholly, or even as predominantly evil. They have thrown themselves valiantly against the rise of dialects among us, and with such success that nothing so grossly unpleasant to the ear as the cockney whine or so lunatic as the cockney manhandling of the h is now prevalent anywhere in the United States. And they have policed the general speech to such effect that even on its most pretentious levels it is virtually free from the silly affectations which still mark Standard English.

In this particular way, the American language has expressed both the literate and the non-literary character of American culture. A printed standard presupposes widespread literacy; the Dictatorship of the Schoolmarm would never have been possible unless everybody in the country had come under her jurisdiction through universal public education. Moreover, if America had had a powerful centralized literary aristocracy able to set up its casual practice as the criterion for the speech of all cultivated men, textbook standards of precision would have been superfluous and impossible. Literacy displaces aristocracy. Students of language note that the tendency to make the spoken conform with the written form of a word “in general grows as the printed and written aspects of language become more prominent in the language consciousness of a people.” While there has been some such tendency in England, it has been much stronger in America. “Each new group of American citizens,” Krapp observes, “has entered into possession of the language not as a natural inheritance, not as a privilege, but as an acquisition, as something to be gained through intelligent application and study.” Through learning to read, write, and speak the common language many peoples were amalgamated into a single nation.

The early New England settlers, middle-class and literate, champions of the common school, had a good deal to do with establishing uniformity in the first place. The Yankee schoolmaster, like the Yankee peddler, traveled widely, and both carried the spelling-book, the yardstick of linguistic respectability. In the early 19th century, a New England storekeeper could list for sale “Everything: whiskey, molasses, calicoes, spelling-books, and patent gridirons.” Noah Webster profited handsomely from the fact that the uniformity of the American language depended on schooling and universal literacy. “Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books [preferably Webster’s Speller!],” he argued in his Dissertations on the English Language(1789), “can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue.” But this would not have been possible without a high standard of living and of literacy:

Let Englishmen take notice that when I speak of the American yeomanry, the latter are not to be compared to the illiterate peasantry of their own country. The yeomanry of this country consist of substantial independent freeholders, masters of their own persons and lords of their own soil. These men have considerable education. They not only learn to read, write and keep accounts; but a vast proportion of them read newspapers every week, and besides the Bible, which is found in all families, they read the best English sermons and treatises upon religion, ethics, geography and history; such as the works of Watts, Addison, Atterbury, Salmon, &c. In the eastern states, there are public schools sufficient to instruct every man’s children, and most of the children are actually benefited by these institutions.

Webster obviously had great faith in a printed, external standard for language. Having made his fortune out of a spelling-book, he could hardly have been expected to believe otherwise. “To reform the abuses and corruption which, to an unhappy degree, tincture the conversation of the polite part of the Americans … and especially to render the pronunciation … accurate and uniform by demolishing those obvious distinctions of provincial dialects which are the subject of reciprocal ridicule in different states”—so read Webster’s petition for copyright for his textbooks, and the introduction to his spellers.

At the same time that Webster legislated on language, he disclaimed the purpose of a legislator. All such legislation was superfluous, he said, because the real authority in matters of language was the American people. This was doubtless one of the things Webster meant when in the preface to his Dictionary he quoted Franklin: “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell.” The trouble with most earlier (and especially English) writers on language, according to Webster, was that they tried to dictate, and “instead of examining to find what the English language is, they endeavor to show what it ought to be according to their rules.” In contrast to this, Webster declared for himself, “The general practice of a nation is the rule of propriety, and this practice should at least be consulted in so important a matter, as that of making laws for speaking.” His standards he found in “the rules of the language itself”: or, in a phrase which he could not repeat often enough, in “the general practice of the nation.”

A democratic respect for folkways was possible, Webster observed in his Dissertations, only in a country of social equality. In England, he explained, the appeal to general usage (the only true purifier and enlivener of language) was impossible for the simple reason that there a small isolated aristocracy, arrogant of its privileges, had elevated its own peculiarities.

While all men are upon a footing and no singularities are accounted vulgar or ridiculous, every man enjoys perfect liberty. But when a particular set of men, in exalted stations, undertake to say, “we are the standards of propriety and elegance, and if all men do not conform to our practice, they shall be accounted vulgar and ignorant,” they take a very great liberty with the rules of the language and the rights of civility.

But an attempt to fix a standard on the practice of any particular class of people is highly absurd: As a friend of mine once observed, it is like fixing a light house on a floating island. It is an attempt to fix that which is in itself variable; at least it must be variable so long as it is supposed that a local practice has no standard but a local practice; that is, no standard but itself….

But this is not all. If the practice of a few men in the capital is to be the standard, a knowledge of this must be communicated to the whole nation. Who shall do this? An able compiler perhaps attempts to give this practice in a dictionary; but it is probable that the pronunciation, even at court, or on the stage, is not uniform. The compiler therefore must follow his particular friends and patrons; in which case he is sure to be opposed and the authority of his standard called in question; or he must give two pronunciations as the standard, which leaves the student in the same uncertainty as it found him. Both these events have actually taken place in England, with respect to the most approved standards; and of course no one is universally followed.

The appeal to an aristocratic standard in language was thus only one example of the general error of elevating local practice into a general rule.

Variations in pronunciation over the American continent seemed to him no objection at all to making the “universal practice” of Americans the standard for the country. In his Speller he purported simply to give voice to this universal practice. “I have no system of my own to offer,” he insisted. “General custom must be the rule of speaking, and every deviation from this must be wrong. The dialect of one State is as ridiculous as that of another; each is authorized by local custom; and neither is supported by any superior excellence.” The standard for an American language would be distilled somehow from the very air of America.

Even before the Revolution, as the English editor of David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution (1791) noted, the American language had acquired a standard of its own. This dialectless language of the New World was to become more uniform and more universal than any yet known to Western man. Time would prove that Webster had spoken with the cryptic voice of prophecy when he urged that “we should adhere to our own practice and general customs.” From these we would develop a standard American language, a language which, as Krapp says, “has grown, and is growing, in a thousand different places, by mixture, by compromise, by imitation, by adaptation, by all the devices by which a changing people in changing circumstances adapt themselves to each other and to their new conditions.” Americans would show enthusiasm both for linguistic legislation and for linguistic folkways. Just as in their attitude to all other laws, Americans would combine a naïve faith in legislation with a profound reverence for ancient customs and the common law. This alchemy of opposites which gave vitality to our written Federal Constitution also gave vitality to our language.

Precisely because no part of our culture is more plainly borrowed, no other part could so well reveal the peculiarities of American life. James Fenimore Cooper summed up the development in his Notions of the Americans in 1828:

That the better company of London must set the fashion for the pronunciation of words in England, and indeed for the whole English empire, is quite plain; for, as this very company, comprises all those whose manners, birth, fortune, and political distinction, make them the objects of admiration, it becomes necessary to imitate their affectations, whether of speech or air, in order to create the impression that one belongs to their society….

There exists a very different state of things in America. If we had a great capital, like London, where men of leisure, and fortune, and education periodically assembled to amuse themselves, I think we should establish a fashionable aristocracy, too, which should give the mode to the forms of speech as well as to that of dress and deportment…. we have no such capital, nor are we likely, for a long time to come, to have one of sufficient magnitude to produce any great effect on the language…. The habits of polite life, and even the pronunciation of Boston, of New York, of Baltimore, and of Philadelphia, vary in many things, and a practised ear may tell a native of either of these places, from a native of any one of the others, by some little peculiarity of speech. There is yet no predominating influence to induce the fashionables of these towns to wish to imitate the fashionables of any other….

If the people of this country were like the people of any other country on earth, we should be speaking at this moment a great variety of nearly unintelligible patois; but, in point of fact, the people of the United States, with the exception of a few of German and French descent, speak, as a body, an incomparably better English than the people of the mother country…. In fine, we speak our language, as a nation, better than any other people speak their language. When one reflects on the immense surface of country that we occupy, the general accuracy, in pronunciation and in the use of words, is quite astonishing. This resemblance in speech can only be ascribed to the great diffusion of intelligence, and to the inexhaustible activity of the population, which, in a manner, destroys space.

Here, in place of the “King’s English,” there had developed a “People’s English,” peculiarly suited to a country without a capital, where everybody was privileged to speak like an aristocrat.

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