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Who Defines Doctrine?
Who Defines Doctrine?

Back in the 1780s, Noah Webster fought to create an American language based on the way American people spoke, not on rules laid down by English aristocrats. His populist philosophy did not entirely appeal to people who bought dictionaries, however. During the 19th century, people bought dictionaries in order to get the authoritative word on words. Having a large dictionary in the parlor became a ticket to culture, writes David Skinner in The Story of Ain't. Thus dictionary companies marketed their products to a set of consumers more conservative than Webster himself.

Webster must have rested uneasily in his grave until 1961, when Webster's Third New International Dictionary startled speakers of American English. Using the new science of linguistics, the dictionary returned to the authentic Webster tradition: Rather than prescribing how people should speak, it described how they actually spoke. As the dictionary's editor Philip Babcock Gove wrote, it needs to be "a faithful recorder … it cannot expect to be any longer appealed to as an authority."

In the controversy that followed, writes Skinner, detractors and defenders alike used moral language. A critic complained in the Saturday Review, for example, that "permissiveness, now on the wane in child-rearing, has caught up with the dictionary makers." Editor Gove celebrated that permissiveness, Skinner reports: He "compared the belief in one correct linguistic standard to a belief in revelation, in the Ten Commandments specifically," rejecting the notion that there is some language deity inhabiting a linguistic Sinai—some source and sanction for language other than usage.

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March 2013

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