Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster were some of the few Orthography experts in the eighteenth century who were highly interested in developing a national language. Their arguments regarding whether words should be shortened or remain the same can be experienced in their works. Further arguments relating to language as an evolving tool of communication and the general etymology can be discussed from numerous angles. However, a deeper analysis of these works reveals that they were more similar than acknowledged. They shared some critical perceptions of language that contributed to the growth of language then and today. The paper, therefore, reveals that Johnson and Webster’s perceptions of etymology on the level of language as an evolving communication tool are similar in as far creating a national language is concerned.
Before establishing the similarities, it is relevant to identify some of the differences that characterize Johnson and Webster’s view on language as an evolving communication tool. Johnson’s main interest was preserving the words, giving fixed meaning to words and integrating the vast nature of language. For instance, he states that words should be defined in a “definition strictly logical” (236), which depicted the rigidity of language. On the other hand, Webster was interested in making language as simplified as possible, hence changing the spelling of some words. He stresses the “simplicity of orthography” (100) in order to simplify communication. Additionally, he immensely advocated for altering the language for the sake of creating a comprehensive national language. He emphasizes that the benefits of making “these alterations are numerous, great and permanent” (100). Although the perceptions depicted present these two professionals as different from a general angle, they are quite similar from a critical angle.
Both individuals acknowledged that change in English is inevitable, although they may have used different approaches to indicate the emergence and growth of this change. First, Johnson appears to be resistant to change. He equates change to a person who attempts to alter nature by convincing people that they can live longer than the period others have been living since time immemorial (239). However, as he continues to develop his work on language, he realizes that change is inevitable. He admits that the influence of commerce and other languages will alter the English language with time. This is one of the areas,, which indicate Johnson’s contradiction of his perceptions.
Unlike Johnson, Webster’s acknowledgment of change is identified from the initial stages of his work. In fact, the larger share of his work, if not the whole it, is concentrated on altering language. It focuses on shortening words in order to simplify the language. He acknowledges that making such alterations may create discordance between the younger and the older generation. However, he states that the older generation will quickly learn to read in the new language and will be taught to write in the old language; meanwhile, the younger generation will be taught how to read and write in the new language in schools. Webster emphasizes that making these changes will cement America’s state of independence. The younger generation will gradually graduate from the state of being children (their mother being Britain) and become “adults” who have a language of their own (101).
Both parties identified that a language’s etymology is unpredictable. Webster keenly indicates that the pronunciation of words is not rigid, and alters over time due to the influence of various factors. He claims that the vastness of the language its onomatopoeia (sound words or words of imitative origin), hence its impact on pronunciation (106). Unlike Webster, Johnson acknowledges the vastness of language by claiming that “single words may enter by thousands” (241).
In order to expound on the vastness of the English language, both scholars focus on the ambiguous state of words in the English language. Johnson presents ambiguity as “men failing to speak with exactness while some senses being nearly allied [connected]” (237). This statement mainly refers to people who intend to use words in meaning one thing, yet they end up meaning a completely different thing. In supporting his argument, Johnson uses the term “uncertainty” to describe himself, if he were to find himself in such a situation (237). Although presented from a different point of view, Webster also presents the ambiguous state of language. Webster presents his independent view by justifying simplicity of words. This is a scenario where one word is altered to look like another word with a different meaning. Webster further indicates than having similar words with different meanings would not be the first case in language. He gives and example of the word ‘wind’ which may mean air in motion or to move around (105).
The concept of time is upheld by both professionals. People should not expect that the concept of a national language will be developed and absorbed in their lives within a short period. Both parties are in agreement in matters relating to the relevance of time agree that time in researching, developing and segregating the crucial from the unimportant information. The citizens will also be expected to take time before they can fully incorporate the new language in their daily speech. Webster indicates that it may take six months of daily reading of newspaper for the older generation to speak without writing the new language (100). However, this may take longer than the indicated period. Johnson indicates that “sudden transformation of language seldom[s] happen[s]” (239).
Furthermore, in their research, these two lexicographers identified that language was irreversible. Once it was transformed, it could not be set back into its original state. This is one of the reasons, which can qualify English as a rigid language (236). Consequently, Johnson also noted that it was hard to perfect language regardless of the effort and time put in its development (236). A person’s ability to conceive words as well as formulate and interpret language highly affects language’s effectiveness on communication.
Webster, on a similar scenario, noted how hard it was to change words from a present state to an initial state. This was noted when he was simplifying some of the English words. Although some simplified words are still used today, some words were unaccepted by other English scholars. This statement can be explained by identifying some of the accepted and unaccepted changes. A significant share of the adopted words had changed from suffix “re” to ‘er’. However, the words that were rejected had been greatly altered, therefore, appearing to lose their meaning. Additionally, eliminating ‘ea’ in words that appeared to have sound ‘e’ was also rejected. For example, changing ‘builder’ to ‘bilder’ was rejected. similarly, changing ‘deadly’ to ‘dedly’ was also rejected (103). Nevertheless, changing ‘theatre’ to ‘theater’ was accepted (103).
The scholars also acknowledge the influence of other factors on language. Johnson acknowledges the influence of commerce, science and other languages on language (241). In his explanation, when two languages interact, they form a third language (214). Furthermore, he indicates that it is almost impossible to translate literature from one language to another language while avoiding the influence of one language on another. In most scenarios, the language which the book is being translated into is the most affected by the other language.
Similarly, Science and Commerce also have great influences on language. The language used to trade has played a significant role in shaping language over the years. Science terminologies are derived from people’s names and other languages relating to the scientist who made the discovery/invention, amongst other. (general knowledge, look at last sentence of this paragraph. Some points are retrieved from the general spirit of some information conveyed by their work and not the specific examples given). Due to these factors, a significant share of the science terminologies did not originate from the English language, yet they are used in the English context. For example, pasteurization is an accepted English name (scientific method of preserving milk) which was derived was the word Pasteur (the name of a scientist).
Still on the influence of language on other languages, both parties acknowledge that language has its limitations. Johnson begins his work on page 235 by stating that “the work…is yet capable of many improvements”. As he continues with his work, he reveals the imperfections of language. Some of language’s imperfections relate to its inability to sustain itself. It therefore, uses words from other languages such as Latin and Greek in order to be satisfactory as a tool of communication. The author enlightens the reader that there is no language that is preserves/sustains itself. Languages need each other in order to develop. This is why some English words are derived from Greek and Latin words.
Webster’s identifies the limitation of words by also acknowledging the input of other languages in the English context. Although he advocated for the teaching of English to everyone (100, 101), he understood that other than acting as a means of communication, language brought identity to a people. For instance, as constantly mentioned, English, whether American or Britain-based, was derived from Greek and Latin words (105). With this regard, he encouraged the Americans to have their own national language in order to depict themselves as independent people who were capable of their language, hence the concept of changing the English language.
In conclusion, Johnson and Webster’s advocacy was one issue- they wanted a national language. Although they may have had their differences in many areas when their work is critically analyzed, their similarities are more than what is acknowledged. This is more so, on etymology in language as an evolving communication tool. One of the similarities identified relates to their perception of the altering nature of words. Although Johnson initially feels that words should be created in a way that they cannot be altered, hence the term “fixed logic”, both scholars realize that the language will change. The individuals also appreciate that it will take time for the language to be accepted and used by all citizens. Additionally, both scholars acknowledge that language is imperfect and it cannot be self-sufficient, hence its nature of deriving words from other languages such as Greek and Latin.
Consequently, the influence of other factors such science is also identified. The professionals acknowledge that the development of words is changing the status of words relating to daily speech. Words that are regarded as informal words today develop into formal words in the future. The irreversible status of words is also acknowledged. Once words are changed (honour to honor, for example) they cannot be reversed. This is the concept that influenced these individuals to be careful on the words they altered or converted. Their predictions can also be acknowledged today as people continue to experience the changing nature of the language. Etymology has been affected by technology in this age of rapid technological changes.