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NOAH WEBSTER'S ETYMOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES* Leslie Bivens Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) established him as America's foremost lexicographer , making his name synonymous with dictionary. It is generally agreed that Webster's main contribution to the field of lexicography was his defining methodology, and this aspect of his work has been well documented. By contrast, the etymological portion of his work is usually regarded as less than scholarly and is little studied even though he spent ten years teaching himself his own type of etymology. It seems appropriate somehow to examine Webster's etymological principles (rather than to dismiss them) in order to gain a clearer understanding of both the man and his work. In the portion of his dictionary titled "Philosophical and Practical Grammar, &c.'" Webster included etymology among the four parts of grammar (along with orthography, syntax, and prosody). He also stated that "etymology treats of the derivation of words from their radicals or primitives, and of their various inflections and modifications to express person, number, case, sex, time and mode."2 Webster's definition at the etymology entry reiterates this dualistic view: 1 . That part of philology which explains the origin and derivation of words, with a view to ascertain their radical or primary signification. In grammar, etymology comprehends the various inflections and modifications of words, and shows how they are formed from their simple roots. 2.The deduction of words from their originals; the analysis of compound words into their primitives.3 According to Michael O'Neill, there are two distinct periods of etymological study: "Before 1800 etymology includes words provenance, the parts of speech and their inflections, and word compounding. After 1800 the scope of etymology narrowed to include only word provenance."4 Thus, according to O'Neill's *This article is based on my unpublished thesis "Noah Webster's Place in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Etymological Theory," Indiana State University 1981. 1 2 Noah Webster's Etymological Principles criteria, because Webster included etymology as a part of grammar , he placed himself in the company of "pre-1800" etymologists; however, because he also emphasized in the introduction to his dictionary that etymology is concerned with "the origin and derivation of words" he also has a place among "post-1800" etymologists. To more clearly understand where Webster stood, this essay will examine his etymological principles in light of the three practical features of etymology: phonology, morphology, and grammar. Since An American Dictionary of the English Language was Webster's masterwork and came after his ten-year study of languages,5 it will provide much important data. Webster, like any non-Continental, turn-of-the-century linguist, had to do his own groundbreaking in the area of phonology. Although some important contributions had been made to the field — for example, Edward Lhuyd's arrangement of letter by articulation rather than by alphabetization and his attempted systemization of letter addition, loss, and change among Celtic languages (see his Archaeologia Britannica, 1707)— nevertheless, nineteenth-century linguists were still trying to understand phonology, sometimes by intuition, sometimes by more empirical methods. Significant work in phonetics was not begun in the western world until the "discovery" and translation of the Sanskrit treatises of the Indian phoneticians. Their careful analysis of sounds by point of articulation and voicing was studied by Sir William Jones (who delivered his famous address correlating Sanskrit with Latin, Greek, and the Germanic languages to the Royal Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786). Further defintive work by Western philologists was not begun until thirty-two years later when Rasmus Rask pointed out the Germanic consonant shift (Investigations on the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Speech, 1818). Rask's ideas were further systemized by Jacob Grimm in 1822 (Deutsche Grammatik, 2nd ed.) and Karl Verner in 1875 ("An exception to the first sound shift"). Two of these most important works could have influenced Webster, but Rask's work was not translated from the Danish until 1830 — two years after An American Dictionary was published — and Grimm's work remained untranslated at the time of Webster's death in 1843.6 Further, application of modern phonetics to English was not accomplished until 1877...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 1-13
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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