Thursday, 16 October 2008

Happy Birthday Noah

By all accounts Noah Webster was a crotchety old man when he started messing around with the spelling of English words and wrote his famous dictionary. If he was alive today, it may be difficult to see even the hint of a smile in all those wrinkles... he'd be 250 years old.

And talking of kissing wrinkly lips, his namesake "the' Noah (the Biblical one) begat three of his children when he was 500 years old. And while I can't be accused of ageism (mainly because I'll could be a victim of it myself before too long) can you imagine begatting anything with a 500 year old? Nasty!

Noah Webster was an enthusiastic begatter too... he and his wife Rebecca had eight chidren.

According to Wikipedia, he was determined to rescue "our native tongue" from "the clamor 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.

For someone living in Africa, his work has done little more than to add to the confusion. In countries like South Africa the British English spelling is the one taught in schools, but it is the American spellings which have had the most cultural influence. I seem to spend half my time editing Americanisms out of my journalists' copy.

Webster can't be blamed for all the confusion though. Its the colloquialisms that make English so interesting. You can always tell a South African by their use of the words "just now", as in "I'll do it just now".

To most people, that means "I'll do it right away" but in South Africa it can mean anything from "I'll do it in a minute" to "I'll do it much later". The distinction is in how many extra vowels are put into the word "just" The longer the word (jaaast), the longer it will be before whatever it is is done.

I heard today of someone who is working on a dictionary of South African signs for people coming to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Seems like a good idea. I mean, where else do you have robots directing the traffic?

1 comment:

Skoorby said...

I was reading the original text of Ben Franklin's autobiography recently, and was struck by the strange and inconsistent spellings of words. In some cases, the same word spelled in different ways. Apparently what Mr. Webster (a great name for the internet age, b.t.w.) standardized things, and is responsible for giving elementary school teachers the opportunity to impose their authoritarian streaks on us. I bet he was a conservative.

I'm not sure we're better off. Think of all the ways to introduce nuance into writing through inventive spelling.