What Noah Webster knew 185 years ago

I’ve always been a Noah Webster fan. He knew that words are important, really important. They’re the building blocks ─ the cells ─ of language. And anyone who spent some 30 years poring over the definitions of words and organizing them for the rest of us ─ so we could communicate better ─ was onto something. Like building a national railroad, highway system or air transportation system to enable us to more readily move from place to place and permit commerce among us, a “codified” language was essential.

I was such a fan of Noah Webster that I named my son after him (and after “Noah of the ark” as well). My love of words and animals seemed a fitting legacy.

Looking up words and reading the dictionary was a regular activity in our house when Noah was growing up. We had multiple dictionaries on our bookshelves ─ children’s dictionaries with lots of illustrations, college dictionaries, and an abridged version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).The latter provides the origin of the word (first time it appears in the English language) plus passages from literature using the word. An important “life” lesson comes from the OED, where you see the meaning of words changing over time. Like so many things in life, you come to understand that many things just don’t/won’t stay the same ─ even the meaning of words.

For many of us now, turning to a dictionary has become a “digital” event ─ you do a search for the meaning of a word on your computer and up pops a variety of electronic dictionary sources on the screen. One of the choices will likely be Wikipedia as well, the free-content encyclopedia. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference websites. There is no “new” Noah Webster writing the Wikipedia entries. Rather, Wikipedia is written collaboratively by mostly anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. And unlike printed reference materials that may take months and even years to get to publication, Wikipedia is continually created and updated, with articles on new historical events appearing within minutes.

Last week, my son and I were chatting about a topic he’s researching for a paper in his university studies. At one point he pulled three dictionaries from our bookshelves to consult. One was my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a gift from a family friend when I was 14. The second was the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that Noah received for his 18th birthday when he was preparing to go to college. The third was the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a Valentine’s Day gift from a friend when I was in graduate school. Noah looked up his word (tolerability) in each dictionary. And like so many dictionary visits before, Noah stopped to call out words he was amused to see near tolerability and other neighboring “T” words.

I’m left thinking about the word searches I often do now on the computer ─ resulting in near-immediate lists of reference sources and definitions. But going to print books ─ where you can turn pages, see what words fall on the same pages, and stop to investigate words you may have never met before ─ is a worthy, important activity too. Having a print dictionary and becoming proficient at information retrieval on the computer are both/ands ─ there’s a time for them both.

I hope we’ll give the children in our lives their own print dictionary and tell them about Noah Webster and why language is so important. And then take a train ride or a drive in the car and talk about the many “highways” that link us, whether constructed of concrete, rail, air ─ or words.

And for those of you who want to know more about the man, Noah Webster, here’s information courtesy of The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor, from April 14, 2013: <http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2013/04/14>.

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster‘s American Dictionary of the English Language was published (books by this author). Webster put together the dictionary because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England. And the problem wasn’t just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects differed so drastically.

Noah Webster was schoolteacher in Connecticut. He was dismayed at the state of education in the years just after the Revolution. There wasn’t much money for supplies, and students were crowded into small one-room schoolhouses using textbooks from England that talked about the great King George. His students’ spelling was atrocious, as was that of the general public; it was assumed that there were several spellings for any word.

So in 1783, he published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language; the first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book,but usually called by the nickname “Blue-Backed Speller.” The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling, and it simplified words — it was Webster who took the letter “u” out of English words like colour and honour; he took a “g” out of waggon, a “k” off the end of musick, and switched the order of the “r” and “e” in theatre and centre.

In 1801, he started compiling his dictionary. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy;and presidential, Congress, and caucus, which were not relevant in England’s monarchy.

Webster spent almost 30 years on his project, and finally, on this day in 1828, it was published. But unfortunately, it cost 15 or 20 dollars, which was a huge amount in 1828, and Webster died in 1843 without having sold many copies.

The book did help launch Webster as a writer and a proponent of an American national identity. Webster had a canny knack for marketing, traveling around to meet with new publishers and booksellers, publishing ads in the local newspapers for his book wherever he went. He also lobbied for copyright law and served for a time as an adviser to George Washington, and wrote his own edition of the Bible. And his tallies of houses in all major cities led to the first American census.

In his book The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (2011) Joshua Kendall argued that Noah Webster would today be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.



Thoughts on reading ─ music & words

I returned to studying music 6 years ago, after decades of not. To be more accurate, I took up the study of classical guitar 6 years ago. Piano lessons between the ages of 5 and 16 and flute between 8 and 14 afforded wonderful opportunities to play in school orchestras and bands, and accompany friends in high school skits. At some point, it became obvious that I was not going to be a musician, a real musician.

This will not surprise Chris, my guitar teacher. Classical guitar is turning out to be way more difficult than I had imagined. But reading music after decades of not has come back quickly. This has me thinking about reading music and reading words. These skills have to be closely related. Music is a language.

There are interesting conversations posted on the Internet from students struggling to learn to read music. They trade advice like: ‘you can do it ─ don’t give up,’ ‘keep practicing,’ and ‘study with a teacher ─ it will be easier than doing it on your own.’

This advice reminds me so much of what we all have to do when we’re learning something challenging, especially a language. It’s clear that in both types of reading (words and music) the reader has to know how to decode and apply in a performance (whether playing the instrument or comprehending the message from words).

With this thinking in mind, it seemed like a logical next step to talk with Chris after my guitar lesson this week to check out his views on reading music and reading words. Chris holds a master’s degree in guitar; his specialty is classical but he plays all styles. He’s been teaching guitar for 19 years ─ to students ages 7 to late 60s. He and his wife are raising three children – a new baby and an 8 and 10 year old.

Let’s start by talking about reading words when did you first realize you were reading words?  Around kindergarten.

Did your parents read to you when you were little?  Yes, a lot. I especially remember my father reading me a book called Mr. Paint Pig, and a bunch of the Golden Books (e.g., Flintstones, Mickey Mouse). We also read books on famous movies like Star Wars and Popeye.

When did you start music lessons?  Viola was my first instrument. Guitar came later ─ when I was 14.

How long have you played guitar?  25 years.

Did you take lessons or teach yourself?  I tried to learn on my own for about three months. But I realized I needed a teacher. So my family signed me up for lessons at a nearby music shop.

When did you learn to read music? I learned sheet music (note-reading) in guitar within the first year of lessons.

What’s the earliest age you have seen children read music? About 6 years old. You need to be at least at the first or second grade reading level before you start reading notation. A child is going to do better at reading music if they can read some text, because music books typically have text explaining what is going on in the exercises. The child should be able to read that text so needs native language reading skills before reading musical notation. 

If a child needs to be a reader of words before they learn to read music notation then the idea I have that reading music would help a student to learn to read words better may not be right.  Well, I do think there is a best sequence ─ where the child is at least an early reader of words before reading musical notation.

Do you see a close relationship between reading words and reading music? Somewhat. They’re both languages and they both require discipline to get good at them. I think that learning the discipline of music can only help you. When kids are first learning to read words, some pick it up fast and others struggle. But does that mean for the ones who struggle that they give up on their fight for literacy? It’s the same in the musical realm. How many great musical geniuses would have been even better had they known how to read sheet music? Some of the greatest jazz musicians were musically illiterate ─ they were amazing guitar players but they could not read or write music. People use that as an argument not to read music. My argument is, how much better would they have been had they been able to read music? Not many people think this way … they’re too busy admiring the ability the musician already has. Knowing how to read music only helps them in music. I think that is how it is in languages too – better mastery can only help.

Do you think kids can become better readers of words if they study music? Maybe ─ I don’t know if there’s a direct connection between the two. But I do think that studying musical notation will help their overall academics. For example, when you look at a piece of music, you’re detecting the patterns in the notes, among other types of decoding such as timing. These complexities are generalizable to other areas of study, like language.

When do you think it’s best to begin music studies for children?  I think kids would benefit from having more intensive music studies in the early grades because that’s when so many of the great classical guitarists started. Think about the musical geniuses that might come out of that ─ if children started to learn music at an early age. Why not implement music education when kids are younger, when it might contribute more to their overall development?

What about your own children ─will you have them learn to read music? Yes, when/if they desire to learn music. I try not to shove it on them but I want them to have musical background in something. My oldest child has been studying the recorder in school and the kids have to learn to read music to play the instrument (folk songs). He’s been enjoying this. I think it would be easy to build on that if he wants to play another instrument next.

As my conversation with Chris concluded, I shared some recent research reported in the medical findings section of The Wall Street Journal (Ann Lukits, 2/18/2013):  “Playing a musical instrument from a young age appears to create new pathways in the brain that process written words and letters and may help children with reading disorders such as dyslexia” (original study is reported in the journal Neuropsychologia). “Musicians generally outperform nonmusicians on cognitive tests, but little is known about the effects of reading musical notes on the brain’s circuitry as it relates to reading.”  The article concludes that more research is needed but “musical training may be quite helpful for children struggling to read.”  Chris was not surprised by this research. 

My  final thoughts: while we’re waiting for more definitive research on the effects on brain circuitry from reading both music and words, I hope we’ll all encourage children to play a musical instrument and read music. It seems like it can only enrich lives and help kids become better readers.