A Declaration of Linguistic Independence: Sixteen Years before He Became the Nation's Second President, John Adams Proclaimed, "English 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."

By Lederer, Richard | USA TODAY, March 2011 | Go to article overview

A Declaration of Linguistic Independence: Sixteen Years before He Became the Nation's Second President, John Adams Proclaimed, "English 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."


Lederer, Richard, USA TODAY


WHEN IN THE COURSE of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to improvise new words to catch and crystallize the realities of a new land; to give birth to a vocabulary endowed with its creators' irrepressible shapes, textures, and flavors; to tell tales taller and funnier than anyone else ever had thought to 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 fight to declare its linguistic independence and to spend its life and liberty in the pursuit of a voice to sing of itself in its own words.

Beginning with the Pilgrims, who struggled with Native American words such as rahaugcum and otchock and transmuted them into raccoon and woodchuck, 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 this 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 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. The mason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations, will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use."

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

In putting this theory into practice, Webster traveled throughout the East and the South, listening to the speech of American people 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 Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Jay, and Washington Irving took their places as authorities alongside William Shakespeare, John Milton, and the Bible. In shaping the 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.

In an 1813 letter, former Pres. Thomas Jefferson echoed Webster and predicted that the vibrant young nation would need many new words: "Certainly so great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas. …

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A Declaration of Linguistic Independence: Sixteen Years before He Became the Nation's Second President, John Adams Proclaimed, "English 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."
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