The Schoolbook That Once United Our Nation
Americans today are engaged in heated debates over the content of classroom textbooks, so perhaps it's a good time to honor a schoolbook that once united us.
Although Noah Webster is most famous for his dictionary, his most influential publication was a small, slender book published in 1783, the year the American Revolution ended. Officially titled "The American Spelling Book," but popularly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller" for the color of its cover, it wasn't simply a spelling book, but instead a primer -- a book that taught young children how to read.
As a young teacher, Webster had observed that children from different parts of New England and New York varied greatly in their pronunciations of many words. He attributed this to the British spellers then in use, which taught children to read by grouping words alphabetically, e.g., age, are, awl.
This approach, Webster believed, caused confusion in youngsters because one letter can have so many different sounds. Thus, in his speller, he grouped words by sound, even if they were spelled differently, e.g., be, pea, see, key.
This fostered a uniformity in American pronunciation, preventing the American tongue from becoming a cacophony of regional and local dialects, which still prevails in parts of Great Britain.
Webster's speller also liberated American children from British linguistic conventions. While British spellers, for instance, taught students to divide words artificially, e.g., clu-ster, ha-bit and bis-hop, the Blue-back Speller offered more natural syllable breaks, e.g., clus-ter, hab-it, bish-op.
Similarly, Webster trimmed elongated British pronunciations, such as "oh-see-an" for "ocean" and "sal-vay-see-on" for "salvation," to their American forms "oh-shun" and "sal-va-shun."
The speller also included patriotic passages featuring American heroes, history, poems and speeches, providing children with not only a common language but also a common heritage.
The Blue-Backed Speller soon became the standard reading text for schoolchildren across the new nation, selling an estimated 100 million copies by 1900. Toted across the continent in knapsacks, Conestoga wagons and railroad cars, it helped unify and standardize the American language. It was often the first book given to newly emancipated African Americans who wanted to learn to read.
Thanks to Webster's humble speller, Americans from Maine to Mississippi to Montana could communicate easily with one another, even if they didn't always agree with one another.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.