Commentary: Webster knew language is the common denominator of understanding

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We see Webster’s Dictionary in every classroom and every household, but we give no thought of the man who actually made this dictionary a reality.

Noah Webster grew up in the small colonial town in the area of West Hartford, Conn. Although he came from a family that had little formal education, as was true of so many of the early colonists, they were well-read and valued learning.

His father was primarily a farmer, but he was also the deacon of the local Congregational church, as well as captain of the town militia. His mother taught him and his siblings spelling, math and music.


When he was 14, Webster began studying Greek and Latin in order to prepare for attendance at Yale College. Well-educated individuals of that day studied Greek and Latin in order to study the philosophy and history of the ancients.

In addition, may studied Hebrew in order to read the original texts of the Bible. By the age of 16, in 1774, Webster entered Yale in New Haven, Conn.

After graduating in 1778, he began teaching in Connecticut to pay for his living expenses, as he studied law, but soon gave up this effort because he gained prominence and enjoyed writing articles justifying and praising the American Revolutionary War against Britain.

Webster loved the freedom and truthfulness that the American egalitarian society encouraged. Unlike the society of Europe, there were no social designations for Americans other than “Mister,” “Madame,” or “Miss.”

He was thrilled with the energizing pride Americans had in America and the can-do attitude that the new Americans expressed. He realized that the Europeans were bound by their traditions and obligations whereas life in America provided boundless opportunities for all. He saw that this love of freedom and the common language were the two elements that brought all these various groups of people together, regardless of age or ethnicity, to form one nation.

Webster’s interest in education intertwined with this fascination and appreciation for the new society that was forming in America. Soon he was creating spelling and grammar books and and a reader for elementary schools with an orientation toward the life and values of Americans. Webster not only wanted to help new teachers teach their students, but he also appreciated the unique language and culture evolving in the New American Republic.

Next, Webster began his life work on a dictionary, which was finally published in 1825, after 26 years of intensive study and labor. He learned 28 languages to help him in this process of evaluating the etymology of words. He standardized the spelling, pronunciation, and use of more than 70,000 words.

He recognized that there were new words for items that existed only in the New World, such as corn, tomato, skunk and moccasin. French and Indian words had also become a part of the American Language.

The British pronunciation morphed into an American dialect. As he studied the roots of words, he gave examples of their meanings and exemplified their use in sentences throughout his dictionary.

Language, he realized, is the common denominator of understanding and thought. If you don’t have a word for something, then it doesn’t exist, whereas, if you do have a word for republic, election, freedom, patriotism, love of family, then these things come into the mental awareness of the individual.

Having a common language, a common outlook, common understanding of history, and a common appreciation of basic moral values, he realized, becomes an important and unifying part of one’s culture.


Newport Beach resident SHERRY MARRON has a doctorate in American studies. She has taught at the University of Connecticut and Orange Coast College.