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Reading Webster between the lines

Language and power have a sturdy relationship whether in the way history is recorded or the way words are chosen in pamphlets (and in editorials).

india Updated: Sep 16, 2006 03:19 IST

As the world commemorated the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center earlier this week, English language speakers and readers around the world may have been subliminally reminded how Americanised we have all become.  September 11, normally truncated to ‘11/9’ in countries following English language rules, stuck to the American ‘9/11’ abbreviation. And it was the World Trade Center — not Centre — that was remembered. While ‘9/11’ has solidified as an iconic pair of numbers for non-Americans, the ‘Center’ in WTC is part of a name and is thus protected from tampering. But who is responsible for this civilisational difference — from ‘colour’ to ‘color’, from ‘grey’ to ‘gray’, the ordering of day-month-year changed to month-day-year? It was American lexicographer and political writer Noah Webster, who exactly 200 years ago published his first dictionary.

That language and power have a sturdy relationship is well-known, whether in the way history is recorded or the way words are chosen in pamphlets (and in editorials). But Webster struck right at the root of the language-power contraption in his A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806. Webster was a staunch nationalist who was keen that the Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4, 1776, was followed up at a more populist level by the use of spellings distinct from those used by the English across the Great Pond. Popular use, rather than ‘correct’ use, was to be Webster’s rule of thumb. So the man, driven by a zeal to forge a strong post-colonial identity for the fledgling US of A, went about changing spellings and enshrining ‘American’ words like ‘presidential’ and ‘constitutionality’.

In India, a post-colonial nation like  the US where people also use English extensively, a quieter revolution has been underway for a while now. While nit-picking grammarians and Nesfield’s English Grammar-junkies wince at ‘history-sheeters’ and ‘preponed’, words continue to be ‘mangled’ and coined on an almost systematic basis. The great populist ideologue, India’s English language media, has played a sterling role in this building of a nationalised language identity. There are still a few glaring anomalies though. The Mumbai blasts of July 11, for instance, are overwhelmingly referred to as ‘7/11’, as opposed to ‘11/7’, the way we usually abbreviate dates in English here. The desire to position the Mumbai attacks next to ‘9/11’ may have appealed to Noah Webster the American, but not to Noah Webster the nationalist.