Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Noah Webster spit on the Queen’s face!

When he was born on October 16, 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut, little did his father know that this boy, this very same boy, on his diapers, his name would one day become synonymous with American dictionaries just as Oxford is synonymous with British lexicographic brilliance. Sadly he was known more as a humourless, religious, school teacher and an unsuccessful lawyer . He was short, pale, smug and boastful. He was a Yale man, having graduated at twenty years of age after reading Latin, Hebrew and Greek at Yale University. Some saw him as a charmless loner who criticised almost everyone but himself. Since the War of Independence, there had been a growing demand for a genuinely American English. The pure geographical distance from England meant that although Americans spoke English, they were gradually sliding away from British English, and a new English dialect was developing, just in the same way that South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and New Zealand were developing their unique varieties of the Queen’s language. Webster therefore argued that “two nations, proceeding from the same ancestors, but established in distant countries, cannot long preserve a perfect sameness of language.” Webster wanted American English to be developed, fixed and standardized. To do this successfully, he wished for a reference document; he wanted a dictionary ÔÇô and at the time he was already writing one. To formalize a language without a dictionary, he argued, was like traversing the stormy seas without a compass and a map. His voice grew louder, especially in the New York Philological society, as he demanded linguistic reform.

Just as in London the demand for a national standard was associated with national pride, the same became true for New York. Webster argued that American English would distinguish America from its immediate rival, England. Webster therefore developed his strategies of reforming American spelling. He argued for the exclusion of all superfluous letters such as the ‘u’ in honour and behaviour. His suggestion was adopted and it stands today as one of the most distinguishing features of what is known as American English. Webster also suggested that superfluous letters as “a” in bread and the “e” in give should also be dropped. His suggestion did not appeal to many and it was rejected. While his spelling reform moved writers closer to phonetic equivalents, it appeared too bizarre to be accepted by many. Webster also suggested that “ea” in words such as mean, speak, bleak and beak should be replaced by “ee” so that they are spelt meen, speek, bleek, and beek. He also suggested that “ch” should be replaced by “k” so that character and choir would be spelt karacter and koir. His reform campaign for these letter changes fell on its face since the spelling conventions had already been established for them to be replaced by Webster’s peculiar and innovative spelling suggestions. However Webster was successful elsewhere. His suggestions to substitute “k” for “que” was successful in such terms as cheque, masque and risqu├® so that they are now spelt check, mask, and risk. He also reversed the French influenced “re” in words such as centre, theatre and metre so that they adopt a uniquely American spelling of center, theater and meter. Webster justified his reform on the basis of utility and efficiency and most importantly as the best possible means of promoting the autonomy of American English. He argued: “A capital advantage of this reform in these States would be that it would make a difference between the English orthography and the American. This will startle those who have not attended to the subject; but I am confident that such an event is an object of vast political consequence.”

Webster argued further, something that should resonate with us here in Botswana: “Besides this, a national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character. However, they may boast of Independence and their freedom of their government, yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent; an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners….turns their attention from their own interests, and prevents their respecting themselves.” It would appear that Webster understood something that some mongst us still fail to grasp; that you cannot divorce language from national identity and that language is intrinsically political. Pretending that language is not political is behaving as if it is not social. Claiming a certain linguistic identity is a unifying act and an act of separation as well. It unifies the speakers of a language and sets them apart from those who speak a different tongue. It establishes autonomy amongst speakers. It says: “We are one but we are different from others.” That is central to independence.
Through independence individuals declare that, “We who live in this place are separate and different. We have a different flag, national language, and an anthem.” This country must rethink the subject of language carefully. It must admit from the onset that language matters would be contentious. Some would be offended by linguistic autonomy while others would celebrate it ÔÇô such is the nature of language autonomy. It excludes as it unites. There is yet another thing that we are losing which can be rescued by language. That is something Webster called “national union”.

Webster was right. There is a need to “render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character.” We need to celebrate Botswana jwa rona as a people, develop true love for the country by cementing national pride through linguistic pride. There is no better way of doing that, as Webster discovered, than turning our backs on a foreign tongue and clinging to our own. Currently there is much lip-service and very little action on the ground.


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