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Friday, December 13, 2019
Winning The Dictionary Wars
Bloods and Crips.
and Red Sox.
the decades, some battles and rivalries have persisted that leave us calling
their confrontations wars.Well, a new
book talks not of gang wars, religious-nation wars, or even sports franchise
competitions, but of big bad dictionaries battling for supremacy.
declared its “linguistic independence from the mother country,” according to The
Fight over the English Language, by Peter Martin, when the Americanized
English dictionary by Noah Webster was published in 1828.(An American Dictionary of the English
had separated itself from Britain, first by force, then economically.Culturally, Americana are ready to seek
independence as well.The dictionary
helped with our nation ‘s intellectual emancipation, distancing us from the
stifling influence of the British arts.
were really two dictionary wars.First,
for the Webster version of the dictionary to supplant the British dictionary.Second, for Webster’s edition to stave off
competition from other. dictionaries,
including ones by Joseph Emerson Worcester, Noah Porter, and Funk &
Wagnalls.Now the competition is from
quote the book’s preface:
book is about the turbulent birth pangs of the American language and the
American dictionary.The word wars
in its title spotlights the militancy that characterized the development of the
English language in America, the contests for dictionary supremacy between
American lexicographers in the nineteenth century and the keen international
rivalry between Britain and America that soiledrelations between the two countries regarding the use of the English
language during the early years of American nationhood.
dictionary battlefields in these “wars” were mainly in the United States,
whether after the American Revolution, the English language was fought over
with bitterness scarcely imaginable or understood in Britain.These wars not only pitted lexicographers
against each other but also drew into the conflict America’s earliest
internationally known authors, its first colleges, state legislatures,
newspapers, publishers, libraries, and individual citizens all over the rapidly
expanding nation.It was a civil war
over words that illuminates America’s search to identify and know itself.It was about a defining hunger for knowledge
of the language and how to use it, about English linguistic heritage and
domination and the way that Americans, restless to come out from its shadows,
dealt with it.It was also a war between
American reformers versus American traditionalists, between the growth of
populist democracy and the defenders of traditional value and manners
associated with elegance and refinement.”
face it, we need a reliable dictionary to tell us who we are, based on the words
we use and should use.We are bigger
than Ebonics, Spanglish, Netspeak, or Brooklynese.Words matter, from spelling, and definition, to
pronunciation.Dictionaries need to be authoritative,
and though many of them co-exist today and do now, Americans require a single
source to tell us what’s legit.
are nearing the two-century honorary point for the Noah Webster-created
dictionary.How will you celebrate?
"To cope with the conflict
between hope and reality, our culture should teach us good integration skills,
prompting us to accept with a little more grace what is imperfect in ourselves
– and then, by extension, in others. We should be gently reminded that no one
we can love will ever satisfy us completely – but that this is never a reason
to hate them either. We should move away from the naivety and cruelty of
splitting people into the camps of the awful and the wondrous, to the mature
wisdom of integrating them into the large collective of the ‘good enough.”
Alain de Botton, On the Tendency to Love and Hate Excessively
The Weird World of English
you know that over half of all Japanese words come from Chinese? This and other fun facts can be found in Our
Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold
History ofEnglish by John McWhorter.
book explains how English came to be. Here’s the Cliff Notes:
One is when Danish and Norwegian Vikings start invading in 787. They speak Old Norse, a close relative of Old
English, and sprinkle around their versions of words we already have, so that
today we have both skirts and shirts, dikes and ditches. Plus lots of other words, like happy and
their and get.
Two: more words from the Norman French
after William the Conqueror takes over ‘England’ in 1066. For the next three centuries, French is the
language of government, the arts, and learning voila, scads of new words, like
army, apparel, and logic.
Three: Latin. When England falls into the Hundred Year’s War
with France English became the ruling language once more, and English writers
start grabbing up Latin terms from classical authors – abrogate and so on.”
book goes on to say modern English grammar is weird. It certainly is, perhaps
because it borrows from so many other languages, including: Dutch, German, Swedish, Yiddish, Norwegian,
Danish and Icelander – as well as French, Spanish, and Frisian.