The English language is one of the hardest to learn because it incorporates so many other linguistic influences as its own. Throughout the years, various scholars have tried to reform the language, so its spelling rules make more sense. Of course, the first problem is the difference between American and British versions of words. For example: American color versus British colour. Since today is near the Fourth of July, which is our Independence Day, it’s appropriate to point out that these differences formalized back when our country was new.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on the English language reform movement, the British standard began with Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755. Noah Webster (1758-1843) standardized American English with his An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, which is why even today, there is still a Webster’s Dictionary.

But before the dictionary, his efforts focused on developing textbooks that easily taught children how to spell and write their own native tongue. He believed spelling should conform to easily taught rules, but not all of his recommendations caught on, which is why we use “cloak” instead of “cloke,” and “tongue” rather than “tung.” You can easily see how the second options make more spelling sense.

Wikipedia has an interesting quote of Webster’s mindset into why American children should be taught differently from British ones:

“His goal was to provide a uniquely American approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.”

His early education had been held in a one room schoolhouse, with teachers who he thought were useless, even once he’d grown. As a teacher himself, he developed what came to be titled The Elementary Spelling Book (first published in 1783 as The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language.) It went through many editions and title changes, but most people called it “The Blue-Backed Speller” because of the cover.

The principle behind the book is to start by teaching the child the alphabet and then moving from simple words to more complex ones. It’s the basic approach of what we now call phonics. Eventually, Webster also wrote a grammar book published in 1784 and a reader in 1785. These were best sellers at the time and reined supreme for teaching children until the McGuffey Readers appeared in 1836, but by that time, Webster’s spelling and dictionary had taught generations of Americans the correct way to spell.

The next time your student has to memorize a weekly spelling list, say thank you to Noah Webster that there are agreed upon standards of writing so we can communicate clearly with each other.

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