A Riter Wil Giv Himself Up to Hiz Feelings.

Scott McLemee’s review of Peter Martin’s The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language begins as follows:

The author of a collection of essays “on moral, historical, political and literary subjects” published in Boston in 1790 acknowledged that they were interventions in the American revolutionary process. “Many of them were dictated at the moment, by the impulse of impressions made by important political events, and abound with a correspondent warmth of expression,” he wrote.

“This freedom of language wil be excused by the frends of the revolution and of good guvernment, who wil recollect the sensations they hav experienced, amidst the anarky and distraction which succeeded the cloze of the war. On such occasions a riter wil naturally giv himself up to hiz feelings, and hiz manner of riting wil flow from hiz manner of thinking.”

The plunge here — from the cadence and diction of 18th-century prose into spelling that may look semiliterate even to readers inured to the guesswork orthography of 21st-century social media — is vertiginous. And all the more so for knowing that the author was Noah Webster. At that point, he was not yet working on his dictionary, the first version of which appeared in 1806. But the seeds of it are already there, planted between the lines of his introductory remarks.

“In the essays, ritten within the last year,” he notes, “a considerable change of spelling iz introduced by way of experiment.” That period just so happened to coincide with the adoption of “the Constitution of the American Republic,” to which Webster makes “a Pledge of Attachment.” His phonetic streamlining of the written word is a calculated blow against British cultural authority — a declaration of independence, in effect — while the long decades of work preparing, revising and promoting his American Dictionary of the English Language represented a protracted constitutional convention of sorts.

I had known that Webster promoted simplified spelling, but it’s striking to see an example of it — how silly it looks, and how normal it would seem if he’d won out! The whole review is enjoyable, and it sounds like the book is as well. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Marjanović says

    how silly it looks

    Naturally giving myself up to my feelings as a foreign learner, my reaction is instead “sanity at last!”

  2. “sanity at last!”

    But not always. The Norwegian spelling boks of box (also saks, laks, maksimum etc.; buksbom, from Greek pyxos, instead of Buchsbaum) because they have a grudge against X always looks a bit nutty to me. The Swedes think X is fine.

  3. On sach okeishns a raiter wil nachurali giv himself ap to hiz filings, end hiz manner of raiting wil flou from hiz manner of thinking.


  4. The problem with “anarky” is that nowadays it looks like a typo for “snarky.”

  5. What kind of a name is Noah for a man who wants simplified spelling? Perhaps he’d just got tired of having to explain the H to hotel receptionists and decided enuf was enuf. I don’t know whether Mr Webster had strong feelings about what Nijma insisted was the Harvard comma or about any other punctuation but according to Amazon Peter Martin divides his time between West Sussex, England, and Spain.

  6. David Marjanović says

    That’s not an Oxford comma: it disappears when you clarify that he divides his time between West Sussex (England) and Spain.

  7. “My parents (Ayn Rand) and God.”

  8. I doubt that any would-be reformer of English spelling would go so far as sach or ap, seeing as the letter u is available. And filings is no good for feelings, and again no reform is needed — ee is just right to indicate [i:].

    Thank goodness Noah Webster relented w.r.t. most of the reformed spellings he tried — otherwise, American written text would be even harder to read than it actually is.

    A clearer and more straightforward version of the sentence quoted by AJP Crown: Peter Martin divides his time between West Sussex and Spain.

  9. I like LH’s discovery Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector a lot too.

    Rosie, ‘Peter Martin divides his time between West Sussex and Spain’ would be enough for you and me.

    it disappears when you clarify that he divides his time between West Sussex (England) and Spain.
    That’s true, but who wants to go around clarifying British counties for incredibly easily confused Americans, Australians and New Zealanders.

  10. John Cowan says
  11. He divides his time between West Sussex and Central Asturias.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely the sundering of the ancient shire of Sussex into “West” and “East” was a more grievous Jacobinical outrage against the settled order of things than any of the late Mr. Webster’s eccentric proposals for orthographic reform? At a minimum the fragments could have been dubbed Wessussex and Essussex.

  13. John Cowan says

    The division is actually very deeply rooted. Sussex is divided from east to west into sub-county units called rapes (apparently a doublet of rope). Before the Conquest there were four, Arundel, Lewes, Pevensey, and Hastings from west to east, probably reflecting the old shires of the Kingdom of Sussex before its conquest by Wessex in 827. Indeed, by the 12C they had sheriffs of their own independent of the county’s sheriff.

    By 1262, Bramber had been made from part of eastern Arundel and western Lewes, and Chichester from western Arundel, leading to the six rapes still known today. The royal capital and later county seat was the city of Chichester, for a long time the only city in the county. Administering such a long narrow county from one end was awkward from the beginning: the Diocese of Sussex had eastern and western archdeaconries from the 11C onward, and courts were held separately by the 12C for the three western rapes and the three eastern ones. By Tudor times the halves were mostly being administered separately.

    Various 19C Local Government Acts confirmed and formalized the situation, and in 1972-74 the county was permanently divided after transferring some of the rape of Lewes to West Sussex, and the counties received separate Lords-Lieutenant for ceremonial purposes. Brighton now has city status and is administered separately from the rest of East Sussex.

    Sussex continues to have an undivided flag, police force, county trust, historical society, and motto expressed in Sussex English: “Sussex wunt be druv”.

  14. I learned that in the Domesday Book the Rape of Arundel is referred to as the Rape of Earl Roger.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Martin (born in Argentina and educated in the U.S., sez the internet) apparently resides in Bury, which per the ancient boundaries is in the Rape of Arundel. Surely no one could have quibbled if his author’s bio said he divided his time between Spain and the R. of A.? (Putting Spain last could potentially have created a misparsing as Rape of [Arundel & Spain]].)

  16. I just looked up Arundel and discovered this interesting derivation:

    Recorded in the Domesday book as Harundel, which comes from the Old English “harhune dell” (horehound valley – from the plant “Common Horehound” which grew here then). Many people erroneously think the name derives from the French Hirondelle (for the Swallow, the town’s bird).

    They should have kept the spelling Harundel.

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