Noah Webster was a terrible phonologist

I’ve been in the NYPL last week looking at Noah Webster’s papers. One of his handwritten lectures reminded me of what a bad phonologist he was. Objecting to John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), Webster singled out the grouping of p, l, t, s, k, and th (as in ‘think’) together under the epithet ‘sharp’, vs. b, v, d, z, and th (as in ‘those’),  termed ‘flat’.

‘Sharp’ and ‘flat’ might be impressionistic and otherwise meaningless terms (cf. still-current ‘broad’ or ‘flat’ to describe vowels, almost always pejoratively, or Webster’s own vowel taxonomy: long, short, broad, and Italian!), but in their defence Walker’s two groups correspond closely to the modern phonologist’s distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants. I’m almost sure that the inclusion of ‘l’ in the list cited above is either an error by Webster, or else just a badly formed ‘f’ on his part. In his book Walker gives his list of sharps as: p, f, t, s, k, and c hard.

None of this is to say that Walker had a modern sensibility when it came to linguistic enquiry. For one thing, he is more interested in letters than he is in sounds. So, e.g. his account of the letter ‘l’:

This letter has not only, like f and s, the privilege of doubling itself at the end of a word, but it has an exclusive privilege of being double where they remain single.’

Good for l!

Yet, if orthography oftentimes takes precedence over phonology in Walker, at least he has his ears open here and there, as in his taxonomy of the so-called sharp and flat. Those sounds do share a basic physical feature, and, at least in the musical sense, sharp and flat are as proper as any other analogy: look at a spectrogram of someone producing those consonants and you’ll find the ‘sharps’ registering way up on the frequency axis, with the flats terminating down nearer the bottom.

Webster on the other hand thinks the only difference between p and b is that p involves a ‘closer articulation of the lips’. Anyone reading this: please say ‘pa’ and ‘ba’ out loud, and then reflect on the differences you can sense in the two experiences of articulation. Your throat will vibrate in one and not in the other (if you can’t sense that, place your index finger lightly against your adam’s apple while trying, and compare). But your lips ought to be in more or less the same place for both.

In the introduction to his great American Dictionary, Webster repeats his phonological teachings. See if you can make sense of the following, also discussing the labials, or ‘lip-letters’, in NW’s Anglicization:

The close articulations interrupt all distinct sound ; such are k, p, and t, as in ak, ap, at. These are called mutes. B and d are mutes, but less close.

By ‘close’ Webster appears to mean ‘closed’, as if more sound were getting through in (voiced) b and d than in (unvoiced) k, p and t. What are his ears attuned to? Amplitude? Certainly not frequency.

Webster’s practical examples have the consonant at the end of the syllable (ak, ap, at – in his lecture he contrasts ep/eb to et/ed, to demonstrate the difference in closeness – closedness?), which may account for a bit of difficulty in separating the voicing of the vowel from that of the terminal consonant, or perhaps mistaking the terminal aspiration for voicing. But still, when generalizing it’s a big mistake to seize on a small and variable difference, and ignore a consistent and significant one.

Maybe Webster was somewhat deaf. Or maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe-and this is my hunch-he thought it indecorous to say things out loud alone in his study and whispered his articulations (try it – see what happens to your voice box when you whisper ‘ba’ instead of speaking it). Certainly he wasn’t able to abstract his normal vocal and auditory experiences into rules that made consistent sense across the language. His zeal to show up British linguists may also have led him to find fault where there was none.

I wonder if this particular deafness to language as it occurs acoustically in time, rather than graphically on the page, might have something to do with Webster’s apparent lack of interest in any kind of imaginative or artistic literature. He gave or willed away most of his important books, and there are records of those gifts. There is no Chaucer, no Shakespeare, no Milton, no Burns, no Wordsworth, no Shelley, mentioned in those documents.

By contrast, consider Edward Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s father and a junior townsman to Noah Webster in Amherst (1812-1822 are Webster’s years in Amherst – Dickinson went off to Webster’s alma mater-Yale-in 1818, but spent his Junior year at Amherst College, which Webster was instrumental in founding). At the end of his life (d. 1874) Dickinson had a library (which he shared with his daughter, and she with him) that included, in alphabetical order, four volumes of Bronte, one each of Bunyon, Bryant, Burns, Byron, and Cervantes, five of Dickens, two of George Eliot, three of Emerson, one of Goethe, two each of Hawthorne and Irving, three of Longfellow, all of Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works, Scott, Shelley, Tennyson, Thoreau, Wordsworth, and, of course, Noah Webster’s 1844 American Dictionary, which Edward bought and inscribed, and which Emily consulted ‘a priest his breviary – over and over, page by page, with utter absorption.’

Granted, several of the volumes listed above would not have been available to Webster until he was old and resistant to new things, but can the discrepancy in family reading tastes be put down to the difference of half a generation? No Shakespeare!? Seriously?

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