Guest / Limited Access /
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.

Reading The Story of Ain't got me ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

From Issue:
Read These NextSee Our Latest
RecommendedCan You See Too Much Jesus in the Bible?
Can You See Too Much Jesus in the Bible?
Why one seminary thinks so and is sending an Old Testament scholar into early retirement.
TrendingLecrae Brings Reformed Rap to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show
Lecrae Brings Reformed Rap to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show
(UPDATED) Performance with The Roots was the first by a Christian rapper on late-night TV.
Editor's PickStudy: Where Are the Women Leading Evangelical Organizations?
Study: Where Are the Women Leading Evangelical Organizations?
That's the mystery the Gender Parity Project, whose results debut this weekend, sets out to solve.
Comments
Christianity Today
Who Defines Doctrine?
hide thisMarch March

In the Magazine

March 2013

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.