Writings on Spelling Reform

Noah Webster

Edited by Jack Lynch

Several selections from Webster’s early writing on spelling reform. Omissions are noted by horizontal lines. [TK]

“An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation” (1789)

[1] It has been observed by all writers, on the English language, that the orthography or spelling of words is very irregular; the same letters often representing different sounds, and the same sounds often expressed by different letters. For this irregularity, two principal causes may be assigned:

[2] 1. The changes to which the pronunciation of a language is liable, from the progress of science and civilization.

[3] 2. The mixture of different languages, occasioned by revolutions in England, or by a predilection° of the learned, for words of foreign growth and ancient origin.

predilection = fondness

[4] The question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniencies in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the American Tongue? Let us consider this subject with some attention.

[5] Several attempts were formerly made in England to rectify° the orthography of the language. But I apprehend° their schemes failed to success, rather on account of their intrinsic difficulties, than on account of any necessary impracticability of a reform. It was proposed, in most of these schemes, not merely to throw out superfluous and silent letters, but to introduce a number of new characters. Any attempt on such a plan must undoubtedly prove unsuccessful. It is not to be expected that an orthography, perfectly regular and simple, such as would be formed by a “Synod° of Grammarians on principles of science,” will ever be substituted for that confused mode of spelling which is now established. But it is apprehended° that great improvements may be made, and an orthography almost regular, or such as shall obviate° most of the present difficulties which occur in learning our language, may be introduced and established with little trouble and opposition.

rectify = correct
apprehend = fear
synod = religious council
apprehended = understood
obviate = make unnecessary

[6] The principal alterations, necessary to render our orthography sufficiently regular and easy, are these:

[7] 1. The omission of all superfluous° or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.

superfluous = unnecessary

[8] 2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak, grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion° a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf for laugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic, arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation.

occasion = lead to

[9] 3. Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.

[10] 4. A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character. Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel, in this manner, ȧ, or ȯ, or ī might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the dipthong° ow, let the two letters be united by a small stroke, or both engraven on the same piece of metal, with the left hand line of the w united to the o.

diphthong = combination of vowel sounds

[11] These, with a few other inconsiderable alterations, would answer° every purpose, and render the orthography sufficiently correct and regular.

answer = serve

[12] The advantages to be derived from these alterations are numerous, great and permanent.

[13] 1. The simplicity of the orthography would facilitate the learning of the language. It is now the work of years for children to learn to spell; and after all, the business is rarely accomplished. A few men, who are bred to some business that requires constant exercise in writing, finally learn to spell most words without hesitation; but most people remain, all their lives, imperfect masters of spelling, and liable to make mistakes, whenever they take up a pen to write a short note. Nay, many people, even of education and fashion, never attempt to write a letter, without frequently consulting a dictionary.

[14] But with the proposed orthography, a child would learn to spell, without trouble, in a very short time, and the orthography being very regular, he would ever afterwards find it difficult to make a mistake. It would, in that case, be as difficult to spell wrong, as it is now to spell right.

[15] Besides this advantage, foreigners would be able to acquire the pronunciation of English, which is now so difficult and embarrassing, that they are either wholly discouraged on the first attempt, or obliged, after many years labor, to rest contented with an imperfect knowledge of the subject.

[16] 2. A correct orthography would render the pronunciation of the language, as uniform as the spelling in books. A general uniformity thro the United States, would be the event° of such a reformation as I am here recommending. All persons, of every rank, would speak with some degree of precision and uniformity. Such a uniformity in these states is very desireable; it would remove prejudice, and conciliate° mutual affection and respect.

event = outcome
conciliate = reconcile

[17] 3. Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.

[18] 4. But 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. For,

[19] The alteration, however small, would encourage the publication of books in our own country. It would render it, in some measure, necessary that all books should be printed in America. The English would never copy our orthography for their own use; and consequently the same impressions of books would not answer for both countries. The inhabitants of the present generation would read the English impressions; but posterity, being taught a different spelling, would prefer the American orthography.

[20] 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 the 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, are still prevalent among the Americans.

[21] Sensible° I am how much easier it is to propose improvements, than to introduce them. Every thing new starts the idea of difficulty; and yet it is often mere novelty that excites the appearance; for on a slight examination of the proposal, the difficulty vanishes. When we firmly believe a scheme to be practicable, the work is half accomplished. We are more frequently deterred by fear from making an attack, than repulsed in the encounter.

sensible = aware

[22] Habit also is opposed to changes; for it renders even our errors dear to us. Having surmounted all difficulties in childhood, we forget the labor, the fatigue, and the perplexity we suffered in the attempt, and imagine the progress of our studies to have been smooth and easy. What seems intrinsically right, is so merely thro habit.

[23] Indolence° is another obstacle to improvements. The most arduous° task a reformer has to execute, is to make people think; to rouse them from that lethargy,° which, like the mantle of sleep, covers them in repose and contentment.

indolence = laziness
arduous = difficult
lethargy = sleepiness

[24] But America is in a situation the most favorable for great reformations; and the present time is, in a singular° degree, auspicious.° The minds of men in this country have been awakened. New scenes have been, for many years, presenting new occasions for exertion; unexpected distresses have called forth the powers of invention; and the application of new expedients° has demanded every possible exercise of wisdom and talents. Attention is roused; the mind expanded; and the intellectual faculties invigorated. Here men are prepared to receive improvements, which would be rejected by nations, whose habits have not been shaken by similar events.

singular = uniquely
auspicious = promising
expedients = solutions

[25] Now is the time, and thisthe country, in which we may expect success, in attempting changes favorable to language, science° and government. Delay, in the plan here proposed, may be fatal; under a tranquil general government, the minds of men may again sink into indolence;° a national acquiescence in error will follow; and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties, which time and accident will perpetually multiply.

science = knowledge of all sorts
indolence = laziness

[26] Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government. Let us remember that there is a certain respect due to the opinions of other nations. As an independent people, our reputation abroad demands that, in all things, we should be federal; be national; for if we do not respect ourselves, we may be assured that other nations will not respect us. In short, let it be impressed upon the mind of every American, that to neglect the means of commanding respect abroad, is treason against the character and dignity of a brave independent people.