The American Spelling Book

I have a replica of The American Spelling Book: Containing the Rudiments of the English Language for the Use of Schools in the United States (whew…that’s a mouthful of a title) by Noah Webster published in 1824. I’m sure when we all hear the name Noah Webster we think of the man who compiled a dictionary which became a standard for the American English language. He also compiled The America Spelling Book, which was the basic textbook for young readers in the early 19th century.

I am fascinated by the book and have been reading it. The opening lesson starts with the following passage:

ANALYSIS OF SOUNDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.

IN the English alphabet there are twenty five single characters, that stand as representatives of certain sounds. A, b, c, d, e, f, g, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z. H is not a mark of sound; but it qualifies or gives form to a succeeding sound.*

In order to understand these letters, or rather the sounds they represent, it is necessary to decline the meaning of the words vowel, diphthong and consonant.

A vowel is a simple articulate sound. A simple sound is formed by opening the mouth in a certain manner, without any contact of the parts of it. Whenever a sound can be begun and completed with the same positions of the organs, it is a simple sound.

A diphthong is a union of two simple sounds, pronounced at one breath. To form a diphthong, there are necessarily required two different positions of the organs of speech.

A consonant, or, as it is called by the ancients, a close-letter, forms no distinct articulate sound of itself. In pronouncing most of the English consonants, there is required a contact of the parts of the mouth, and the union of a vowel; though some of the consonants form imperfect syllables of themselves.

This first chapter goes on to explain pronunciation of the letters, combination of letters and talk about accents, emphasis and cadence. Then from there come the charts of words, broken down into lessons. It starts with simple one syllable words and works up to more and more complicated words. If I’d studied this book as a kid my vocabulary would be amazing. I’ve had to look up more words from the later spelling lessons! We’ve lost that eloquent (and sometimes complicated) way of speaking from the 18th and 19th century. From there the book starts to move into reading passages. And this is where I fell in love with this book. I love the observations about life and people, the little history lessons, and most of all the fables.

It’s interesting to see how church and school weren’t separate. There are many passages like the following:

Therefore be not anxious for the good things of this life, but seek the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness, and all things shall be added to you.

The fables are meant to teach children lessons—to obey their elders, to not be greedy and so forth. This is one of my favorites:

The COUNTRY MAID and her MILK-PAIL.

WHEN men suffer their imaginations to amuse them with the prospect of distant and uncertain improvement of their condition, they frequently suffer real losses by their inattention to those affairs in which they are immediately concerned.

A country maid was walking very deliberately with a pail of milk upon her head, when she fell into the following train of reflections; The money for which I shall sell this milk, will enable me to increase my flock of eggs to three hundred. These eggs, allowing for what may prove addle, and what may be destroyed by vermin will produce at least two hundred and fifty chickens. The chickens will be fit to carry to market about Christmas, when poultry always bears a good price; so that by May-day I cannot fail of having money enough to purchase a new gown. Green–let me consider–yes, green become my complexion best, and green it shall be. In this dress I will go to the fair, where all the young fellows will strive to have me for a partner; but I shall perhaps refuse every one of them, and with an air of disdain toss from them. Transported with this triumphant thought, she could not forbear acting with her head what passed in her imagination, when down came the pail of milk, and with it all her imaginary happiness.

It’s a book that definitely gives you a sense of the time period and how people thought.  If you’re looking to get a sense of the language and how it was used in the 19th century this is definitely a good book to read.  I recommend reading it for anyone writing a historical piece set in the 1800s.

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2 Responses to The American Spelling Book

  1. Very interesting. I love old books especially old school books since I am a retired elementary school teacher.

    I really enjoyed this blog so much! Thanks!

  2. Jennifer says:

    You’d love this book! I’m so tempted to work something from this book into one of my English Comp classes 😀 I think my students would have fun with it!

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