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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Noah Webster and the Nightmare of Colonial Grammar

by Sarah Morin on 2023-09-19T08:30:00-04:00 in Archives, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History | 0 Comments

To the confusion of budding researchers and the horror of modern grammarians, colonial handwriting is often a minefield of nonstandard spelling, random capitalization, and archaic syntax. As such, we often post the following disclaimer at the beginning of our blog entries:

When quoting from documents, we will use the actual spelling, including transcriptions of individual words as necessary. (For more information about colonial spelling practices, see The Standardization of American English at In certain circumstances, we will add missing letters to abbreviated words or substitute modern spelling in brackets to enhance reader comprehension.

Given that September is commonly the first full “back to school” month in America, we will delve further into this disclaimer by examining colonial spelling and grammar practices, as well as a court case relating to Noah Webster’s attempts to reform them.

An Unsettling Lack of Consistency

Since the language reformations of the Victorian era, schoolchildren in England and America have grown up in a world where spelling and grammar are fixed to a consistent standard—and prescriptive to the point that the “Grammar Nazi” trope is both celebrated and lampooned in popular culture. However, this is a relatively new development, historically speaking. While the elites of the colonial era were literate in both English and Latin, several documents from the New Haven County Court records demonstrate that some of our most cherished grammatical rules were not yet in existence, and that these learned men did not consider consistent spelling to be a necessary component of writing.

In the early 1700s, there was no such rule as “I before E, except after C.” So it was common to see what we would now consider misspellings like “feild” in the court documents.

single page of paper with handwriting, “Common feild” underlined in red

Matthew Bellamy of Wallingford filed eight lawsuits against various individuals for debt, trespass, and land disputes from 1721 to 1729. In the court papers, we counted at least 12 variant spellings of his surname: Bellamy, Belemiy, Belemeay, Bellamie, Bellemy, Bellomye, Bellamine, Belamey, Belemie, Belomie, Bellame, and Belamye. His first name did not escape inconsistency, either, as it was spelled Matthew and Mathew—sometimes in the same case!

two pages of paper with handwriting, “Matthew Bellamy” and “mathew belemiy” underlined in red

In this 1802 debt lawsuit, we find a married couple whose surname is inexplicably spelled in two different ways: John Barns and Abigail Barnes.

single page of paper with handwriting, “John Barns & Abigail Barnes” underlined in red

For a particularly egregious violation of modern “there, their, and they’re” usage rules, check out this lawsuit from November 1792.

While standardization of written English was clearly lacking, there were still linguistic conventions, though we now consider most—if not all—of them archaic. As Margaret Ellen Newell explained in her book Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery:

Early modern English writers commonly used “y” in place of “i” and “e” in words such as “it” and “them” and sometimes also employed a letter known as a thorn, written as “y,” to signify the sound “the” (as in “ye” for “the”). They employed the letters u and v, and i and j, interchangeably (“have” as “haue”) and utilized commonly understood contractions and abbreviations (“Wch” for “which” and “Mai” for “Majesties”) (page xi).

As this tutorial in deciphering historic cursive handwriting discusses, abbreviations for first names, titles, and common English and Latin phrases were also used in documents of the time period. And then there is the difficulty of interpreting the Long S, which has bamboozled several investigators perusing colonial documents.

Noah Webster Sues His Publisher

portrait of an elderly white male sitting in a green chair

Noah Webster, painting by James Herring, 1833. Courtesy of Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

several pages of paper with handwriting

Court papers from Noah Webster vs. William P. Farrand, 1812. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the case goes on for several pages...

While this isn’t the first time that Noah Webster appeared in the New Haven County Court records, it is the only case we have discovered to date that concerns his efforts to reform the English language.

In November 1812, Noah Webster of New Haven sued his publisher, William P. Farrand, for covenant broken. Specifically, he alleged that in May 1810, he and the Philadelphia bookseller made an agreement regarding the publication of Webster’s “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” where Farrand would have “the exclusive right of printing publishing & rending the same within the United States.” Farrand also obtained similar rights for printing and distributing Webster’s “American Spelling Book” in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; “Philosophical & Practical Grammar” (& the Abridgement of it when made) in the United States; and the “new & complete dictionary of the English Language” in the United States. However, according to Webster, Farrand “hath wholly failed to perform his said covenant & every stipulation & part thereof” and that he “hath entirely neglected & failed to print... or to offered for sale in any part of the United States or elsewhere.”

In recompense, Webster demanded $10,000 in damages. Unfortunately, the Court ruled that his plea was insufficient and awarded Farrand the recovery of his court costs. Of course, Webster appealed to the Superior Court, and we look forward to following this saga further when we process those records. (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 18, 1812-1816, p. 5)

However, regardless of the outcome of this case at the Superior Court, the dictionaries pictured below demonstrate that Noah Webster ultimately succeeded in the quest to publish and widely distribute his works.

large book open to portrait of Noah Webster (left) and title page (right)

Title page of Noah Webster’s 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language. Book owned by the California State Library. Photo by Jim Heaphy. Courtesy of Cullen328, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons.

miniature book with blue cover and text “The Little Webster, L, Langenscheidt”

“Lilliput Webster” 319 pocket dictionary printed by Langenscheidt of Germany, circa 1900s.

As noted in a previous post, the records for the Noah Webster case, as well as several of the cases previously profiled in this blog, are currently in the process of being digitized. They will eventually be available for public viewing at the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).

This project is made possible through funding from the Historic Documents Preservation fund of the Office of the Public Records Administrator. We also recognize the past support of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

logo of stylized book and color splashes representing each department with text: CT State Library Preserving the Past. Informing the Future. logo of eagle with text: National Archives National Historical Publications ampersand Records Commission

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