Noah Webster, familiar to most Americans as the writer of the first American dictionary, worked as a schoolteacher in the late eighteenth century. As he taught, he came to realize that there were some major problems with the way English was taught in the American schools. The United States of America had recently declared its independence from England, and was struggling to form its own identity. The schools were still using textbooks from England, and these books varied in consistency when it came to spelling, pronunciation and grammar (Short Summary Website). As a teacher, and as a patriot, Webster felt a need for an American textbook. He wanted consistency and he wanted it to reflect that there was an American dialect of English that was distinctive from that of England (Bett Website). He had also noted that the social classes of England were often distinguished by differences in dialect, and he wished the United States to have a single, distinctive dialect that would rise above differences in class (Bett Website).
As a result of these goals, in 1783 he published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. This textbook, later republished in 1788 as The American Spelling Book, standardized spelling and grammar for the American dialect. The preface to the speller states his objective for the speller as
"To diffuse a uniformity and purity of language in America, to
destroy the provincial differences that originate in the trifling differences of
dialect and produce reciprocal ridicule, to promote the interests of
literature and the harmony of the United States…" (Blue-Backed Speller
The new speller, nicknamed the "blue-backed speller" for the blue paper that lined the cover, officially recognized the difference between American and British dialects of English (Webster, Noah Encarta). Although it did not cover a great deal, it laid the foundation for his later dictionaries. It included distinctly American spellings of words and pronunciations. It also supported Webster's belief in democracy. By seeking to standardize the learning of language in American classrooms, he was putting into play a belief that the semantics of a language play a key role in a person's power to create a system of ideas, thus creating a more educated citizen able to participate in a democratic system (Noah Webster's American Dictionary Website).
This book was revolutionary not only because it sought to "Americanize" the classroom, but because of the tone of the book. Most previous grammars were prescriptive, meaning that they informed the student how the words should be spoken or spelled. The "Blue-Backed Speller," on the other hand, was a descriptive work, meaning that it merely showed how words were actually used and pronounced by real speakers of the language (Millward 245).
Although the blue-backed speller was a great success, it merely provided Webster with a paycheck that enabled him to...