Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to improvise new words to catch and crystallize the new realities of a new land; to give birth to a new vocabulary endowed with its creators’ irrepressible shapes and flavors; to tell tales taller and funnier than anyone else had ever told before; to establish a body of literature in a national grain and to harmonize a raucous chorus of immigrant voices and regional lingoes — then this truth becomes self-evident: that a nation possesses the unalienable right to declare its linguistic independence and to spend its life and liberty in pursuit of a voice to sing of itself in its own words.

Beginning with the Pilgrims, the story of language in America is the story of our Declaration of Linguistic Independence, the separating from its parent of that magnificent upstart we call American English.

John Adams was one of the first to lead the charge for American linguistic autonomy. In 1780, 16 years before he became president, he called upon Congress to establish an academy for “correcting, improving and ascertaining the English language.” “English,” Adams proclaimed, “is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”

At the time Adams made that prediction, an obscure Connecticut schoolmaster was soon to become a one-man academy of American English. His name, now synonymous with the word dictionary, was Webster. Noah Webster saw the untapped promise of the new republic. He was afire with the conviction that a United States no longer politically dependent on England should also become independent in language.

In his Dissertations on the English Language, published in 1789, Webster declared linguistic war on the King’s English: “As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.”

Putting his vision into practice, Noah Webster traveled throughout America, listening to people’s speech and taking detailed notes. He included in his dictionaries an array of shiny new American words, among them applesauce, bullfrog, chowder, handy, hickory, succotash, tomahawk — and skunk: “a quadruped remarkable for its smell.” Webster also proudly used quotations by Americans to illustrate and clarify many of his definitions. The likes of Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Jay and Washington Irving took their places as authorities alongside William Shakespeare, John Milton and the Bible.

In shaping the American language, Webster also taught a new nation a new way to spell. He deleted the u from words such as honour and labour and the k from words such as musick and publick, he reversed the last two letters in words such as centre and theatre, and he Americanized the spelling of words such as plough and gaol.

Perhaps no one has celebrated the American language with more passion and vigor than the poet Walt Whitman. “The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world, and the most perfect users of words,” he predicted before the Civil War. “The new world, the new times, the new people, the new vistas need a new tongue. What is more, they will not be satisfied until it is evolved.”

These days, it’s debatable whether Americans are “the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world,” but there is no question that we are still engaged in the American Evolution and that our American parlance is as rollicking and pyrotechnic as ever. Consider our recent inventions of delectables such as selfie, binge watching, vaping, unfriend, hashtag, emoji and crowdfunding.

Returning from a tour through the United States in the late 19th century, the British playwright Oscar Wilde jested, “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Wilde’s fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw observed, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

But our homegrown treasure Mark Twain put it all into perspective when he opined about American English, as compared with British English: “The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares.”