As a young teacher, he was appalled at the quality of the nation's schools and vowed to do something about it. He did, and then some. His readers, spellers and dictionaries became the backbone of American schools for 100 years.
We speak of our own Noah Webster, born in 1758 in the West Division of Hartford (now West Hartford). A number of events — including a reading of Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language — will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mr. Webster's birth, and celebrate it we should.
Just after the American Revolution, most schools were overcrowded, poorly staffed and equipped with outdated and inadequate texts. Mr. Webster believed the young country should have a distinctly American version of the English language, and so wrote a speller, a grammar and a reader to train American children.
The speller was revolutionary in its simplicity. He understood that children learned in phases as they grew, and began the speller with the alphabet and moved through the sounds of letters to syllables, words and sentences. The title of the speller changed over the years, but it was commonly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller" for its blue cover, a name recovered for the new development in West Hartford Center.
Mr. Webster became equally famous for his dictionaries, in which he Americanized certain Britishisms, changing "centre" to "center" and "favour" to "favor," for example.
Mr. Webster, friend of Benjamin Franklin and other lights of his generation, helped create the country's first copyright law (in a burst of enlightened self-interest) and also helped found Amherst College. Yet his greatest contribution has to be the establishment and teaching of a standard language, without which the country's progress would have been more difficult.
In an appropriately creative commemoration of Mr. Webster's birth, The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society — located in Mr. Webster's childhood home on South Main Street in West Hartford — is sponsoring a reading of the headwords (the words that are defined) in the 1828 dictionary. Groups or companies can sign up to read all the words under a particular letter. The President's College of the University of Hartford, which is co-sponsoring the reading project, began the festivities April 19 with the letter "A."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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