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July 3, 2003 - English in Early America - 2003-07-03

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: July 3, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, Rosanne Skirble is away. This week on WORDMASTER -- English in early America. It's a timely topic, as Americans get ready to celebrate the Fourth of July. On that day in seventeen-seventy-six the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain.

Jill Lepore is a history professor at Harvard University and author of the book, "A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States."

LEPORE: "One of the chief dangers that political theorists in the eighteenth century perceived about founding an American republic -- that is, unifying these states -- was that Americans didn't really have that much in common with one another. Many Americans did not speak English as their first language, for instance.

There were a lot of native French speakers, a huge number of native German speakers, all of the Africans, all of the Native American peoples that lived in the colonies. None of those people spoke English as a first language. Some African Americans did speak English as a first language."

AA: "The Africans you referred to would be the slaves who were brought here."

LEPORE: "Right, right. So there were a number of projects after the Revolution that were attempting to homogenize pronunciation. And Noah Webster was the chief architect of the plan that was most successful, which was to basically give every American the same spelling book."

AA: "Let's talk a little more about Noah Webster. Who was he? What was his job?"

LEPORE: "Webster was a New England farmer's son. He was born in 1758. He went to Yale [University.] He'd kind of just missed out on fighting in the Revolutionary War and was a little bit bitter about that. It was a heroic act of his generation. He, when he graduated, tried to become a schoolmaster. He had some law school training, he did a bunch of things.

"Working as a schoolmaster and traveling a little bit -- really, as an itinerant schoolmaster, because he wasn't very successful -- he became quite appalled at the great differences in speech, in pronunciation, that he observed among Americans. He hadn't traveled very much out of New England until that point in his life. And he decided that what he ought to do, the service that he could do to his nation would be to homogenize American pronunciation."

AA: "Without the Internet, without telephones, without all the instant messaging, how did he go about doing something like that?"

LEPORE: "Well, he traveled a lot, he gave lecture tours -- in which he was heckled, because one of the things that he perceived was that New England pronunciation was the right pronunciation. And so when he traveled in the South, for instance, he considered it uncouth. He considered the pronunciation of Southerners to be wrong. So he had a difficult charge. But what -- the reason that he was so successful was he had a great niche to enter into, because American schoolchildren needed to read.

"I mean, it was sort of even more of an urgent necessity in a democracy than it was when Americans were subjects of the English monarchy. And the only schoolbooks they had were English schoolbooks, where all the little stories and reading exercises were about how wonderful the king was. So sort of like, you know, Iraqis burning all their Saddam textbooks.

I mean, Americans just didn't want these schoolbooks anymore, so they threw them all out. And they had nothing to use to teach their schoolchildren to read. So Webster wrote in 1783 'The American Spelling Book' and had it printed all across the colonies. And it became the spelling book by which generations of Americans learned to read.

"All of the American distinctive spellings, like that we spell honor without the U or mimic without the K, these are all Websterisms. Webster introduced these to simplify spelling, but he also wanted his books to look different from English books. He thought that one way Americans would feel themselves to be American was if they picked up a newspaper and they could tell immediately that it was an American newspaper, because mimic wouldn't have a K, that this would just be a badge of our national identity."

AA: "Now we've been talking about English as it was spoken in the early United States. There were some people, though, who wanted German to be the official language, did they not?"

LEPORE: "There was, you know, kind of -- people, some had seriously suggested German as the national language. But there was also a discussion of whether French should be the national language, because France had come to our aid during the Revolutionary War and that it was more appropriate to be loyal to the French language than to the English language.

People wanted to rid themselves of the English language. You know, people would say, well maybe Hebrew should be the American language, because we are a 'chosen people.' None of these proposals were very serious. But they were all indications of just how much up for grabs, to some degree, the idea of a national language was and how uncomfortable people really were with the idea of English being the American language."

AA: Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore is the author of "A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States." And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is and we're on the Web at I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Yankee Doodle Boy"/James Cagney 1942