Noah Webster's Plan to Reform English Spelling

'These would . . . render the orthography sufficiently correct and regular'

Portrait of Noah Webster (1758-1843) in front of his dictionary. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

For centuries, the often puzzling conventions of English spelling (largely the result of the collision of two distinct orthographic systems—those of Old English and Norman French) have inspired countless reformers to concoct new phonologically based alphabets.

Benjamin Franklin, for example, suggested replacing the letters c, j, q, w, x and y with two new vowels and four new consonants. George Bernard Shaw championed an alphabet made up of 40 letters.

More recently, the Simplified Spelling Society has endorsed a system known as Cut Spelling, wich removs redundnt letrs.

So far, the only remotely influential exponent of spelling reform in English has been the American lexicographer Noah Webster. Four decades before publishing the first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Webster spelled out a plan to renovate American English.

To "render our orthography sufficiently regular and easy," Webster said, these "principal alterations" are necessary:

  1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.
  2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf for laugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic, arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation.

    Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.
  3. A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character. Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel . . . might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the dipthong [sic] ow, let the two letters be united by a small stroke, or both engraven on the same piece of metal, with the left hand line of the w united to the o.
These, with a few other inconsiderable alterations, would answer every purpose, and render the orthography sufficiently correct and regular.
(Noah Webster, "An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation." Dissertations on the English Language, 1789)

As you've probably noticed, only a small number of Webster's proposed spellings were ever adopted. Masheen and dawter quickly came to grief (never greef), but plow and draft have endured in American English. And it's true that most of the distinctive features of American spelling (such as the missing u in words like honor and favor) can be credited to the influence of Webster's best-selling Grammatical Institute of the English Language (popularly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller").