Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Real Noah and his 'Ark'

Coffee Bean left a comment on my last post about the English language (and how frustrated I am that Obama - he of the giving orders - demanded that we teach our children Spanish to help them communicate with our millions of non-integrated immigrant pals.)

She wrote: "I just don't understand why the English language is not our official language... why we don't have an official language at all."

Actually, that's not true.

It is true that the federal government has never officially recognized English as the official language of the United States of America. However, 28 states have declared English their official state language (with Louisiana and Hawaii counting French and Hawaiian as co-official languages.)

Here are the states and here are the years the state legislature passed the resolution to approve their official state language:

Alabama (1990) Arkansas (1987) California (1986) Colorado (1988) Florida (1988) Georgia (1996) Illinois (1969) Indiana (1984) Iowa (2002) Kentucky (1984) Massachusetts (1975) Mississippi (1987) Missouri (1998) Montana (1995) Nebraska (1920) New Hampshire (1995) North Carolina (1987) North Dakota (1987) South Carolina (1987) South Dakota (1995) Tennessee (1984) Utah (2000) Virginia (1996) West Virginia (2005) Wyoming (1996) Hawaii (with Hawaiian) (1978) Louisiana (with French) (1807)

So more than half of America has officially recognized English as the official language - and the fact that law, communications and documentation in the Senate, congress and the White House is written in English makes English the unofficial, but de facto language of the US Government.

It's largely the same across the state legislature as well (although until 1920, New York translated all official documents into Dutch as well, as a nod to New York's origins as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.)

But as far as I'm concerned, all that pales into insignificance compared to the history of the English language in the United States of America - and how the American Revolution against Great Britain was so all-encompassing that even words and spelling rebelled against them.

Noah Webster

His name was Noah Webster - and if you haven't heard of him, you'll probably be familiar with his book. Webster's Dictionary is the bedside companion of every writer, teacher and college student and has been since 1783 - when Webster published his first 'speller.'

Noah Webster was born to a good Connecticut family in 1758 and started a good education at Yale university, until classes were disrupted by the American Revolutionary War. Webster served in the Connecticut militia during the war itself, before graduating two years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Following the war, Webster earned his law degree - but eventually decided to pursue education and writing as his career. He moved to New York City in 1793 at the request of founding father Alexander Hamilton, to help edit a Federalist newspaper.

Noah Webster was an incredibly prolific and accomplished writer and publisher. In addition to founding and editing New York's first newspaper, he threw himself into bettering the American public school system, which he saw as badly run, overcrowded and poorly equipped.

His philosophy was that America, as a new nation, deserved a consistent and all encompassing approach to reading, writing and spelling. With this in mind, he published three groundbreaking textbooks - a 'Speller,' a 'Grammar' and a 'Reader.'

What Noah Webster did was unheard of. He demanded uniformity in spelling and grammar, angrily hissing that grammar should follow "the rule of speaking" and therefore every archaic deviation from popular usage "must be wrong."

He was equally forthright about spelling, promising to rescue "our native tongue" from "the clamor of pedantry" common in England.

With this in mind, he created the first, definitive dictionary of the English language, establishing official spellings of popular words to be used consistently in all written English across the United States.

Most significantly, many of these spellings differed from traditional English. In order to simplify the rather arcane rules of British spelling and pronunciation, he encouraged conformity and created a breaking off point. From that date on, British English and American English would grow, develop and progress on parallel, but different paths - later inspiring George Bernard Shaw to remark that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

Webster's magnum opus took 27 years to complete - An American Dictionary of the English Language. This was the master work from which American English took form. It was a reference of almost unheard of breadth and comprehensiveness. Although regularly updated with new words and phrases, this dictionary is still in print as today's Mirriam-Webster dictionary.

Basically, this man invented American English. But more importantly, he invented it specifically as an American language - based on, but starkly different to British English.

So people might argue that America has no 'official' language, but that's not true. The official language of the United States was born in the flames of the revolution and has shaped the foundations of every American institution since that date. American English is as entwined in the fabric of the American nation as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address. It is American lore.

So when Barack Obama arrogantly demands that we 'stop worrying about immigrants learning English' and 'make sure our kids speak Spanish' he is doing so in blissful ignorance of more than two hundred years of American History.

To take a step back from American English is to retreat from the central, core values of American society. You might as well 'step back' from the Bill of Rights or the Pledge of Allegiance.

Language defines a nation. This is why little places like Wales and Cornwall fight so vehemently to protect their dying language from obscurity. Considering that America continues to be such a cultural melting pot of different ethnicities, races, backgrounds and beliefs, it seems more important than ever to have one unifying thing to hold us all together as 'Americans.' And that thing, as far as I'm concerned, is the English language.


Coffee Bean said...

Very nice Roland! Noah Webster is someone we covered in my History class last year. It didn't occur to me to relate our current debate over language back to Webster. Quite brilliant... and I'm saving this in my favorites.

Reverse_Vampyr said...

I loved this post!

The older I get, the more I am becoming a history buff. And this one really piqued my interest. Very insightful analysis!