More on Language: Dictionaries and Spelling Reform

As a followup to the critique from my previous blog post, as well as a way to move forward with my research for the paper, I’m going to respond more to Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America. After reading the relevant sections of the book over the weekend, I’ve been able to move forward with my research topic and establish a very good sense of the direction I’m going in, which I’ll get to later.

While the focus is ultimately on Howells, I became more interested in the topic of spelling reform and dictionaries. English spelling was chaotic in his opinion, and he hated the spelling in dictionaries (Nettels 3,4). The most striking sentence about the use of dictionaries was, “Because Americans were not bound by birth to a particular social class and its usages, they enjoyed the prospect of climbing the social ladder by acquiring certain tastes and manners, above all those habits of speech widely regarded as ‘the surest test of a gentleman’” (11). Dictionaries, among other things, were one of the mediums used to learn the “proper language”. This seemed interesting to me, so I wrote it down and continued reading. Throughout much of what I read, there was this same general idea repeated, that language indicated one’s social class. The words that were accepted in society, as well as the “correct” pronunciations, would be present in those dictionaries, so those that were considered established members of society would be the individuals who used those words (18). The rest of the book continues on to focus more on dialects, which I originally wanted to focus on. But this detail about language, dictionaries, and social class really stuck with me.

Now for my paper I’m thinking on focusing more on dictionaries. Who was reading them? More specifically, what were individual’s occupational rank? It’d be interesting to delve deeper into what the book says to see if people attempted to better themselves in society through dictionaries. Although I’ve only just begun, the data I’ve collected so far from What Middletown Read is very promising. After searching “dictionary”, there were approximately 122 patron results. Most transactions were classified as “low white collar” and “skilled”. Using dictionaries as a way for social betterment seems like a proper conclusion, but still something I want to look into more closely. There were many details, such as women being classified occupationally by what their husbands or fathers were classified as that I want to research more.

In addition to looking further into the specific dictionaries, I’d probably also look up spelling reform at the time. Maybe there was a larger movement around the time of What Middletown Read’s collection, or maybe one just before. Either way, I need to look further into the historical aspect of the time period so as to look for more context. And, as I discussed during my individual conference today, there might be particular wording in the dictionary prefaces that explain the author’s purpose for compiling the dictionary. Perhaps spelling reform will be a reason, or maybe I will discover something else.

This book was really interesting and SUPER helpful, as I now have a clearer, less hazy topic and I know the direction I’m moving in!


5 thoughts on “More on Language: Dictionaries and Spelling Reform

  1. I like the way this post traces the evolution of your thinking to the point where you arrive at a reasonable, narrow, and totally interesting, data-driven research question! It’s fascinating to me how one sentence can really capture a researchers and propel her in another direction that is at least as fruitful.

    Here is the article I mentioned, from Book History, volume 3.

    Erin A. Smith. How the Other Half Read: Advertising, Working-Class Readers, and Pulp Magazines

    While you’re certainly not interested in pulp magazines, you may be interested in the way Smith defines these readers and demonstrates how the advertising in such magazines appealed to their social aspirations. I imagine, also, that there is plenty of research out there that can help you think about how, say, cheaply reprinted classes, and series like the “Best 100 Books,” helped working- and middle-class people to develop what we might now call (perhaps ironically) “cultural literacy.” Jonathan Rose’s book, of which we read a chapter, can also help with this goal.

    I expect, when you look at this dictionaries, that they will be about more than regularizing spelling, which may have been adequately addressed by Noah Webster in the 1820s (or thereabouts; it would be good to learn a little bit about Webster and other early American dictionary makers). But I eagerly await what you discover!

  2. I think that this is developing into a really interesting topic! I appreciate how you have taken something completely academic (and arguably a bit boring) as the dictionary, and transported it into something social. I think that this transition will offer whatever correlation you find a good sense of personality. I do think that it would be helpful for you to focus in on a single dictionary, and possible a single group of people reading that dictionary. I don’t know if such a narrow approach is possible, but it might be a helpful thing to try. Also, I think we’ve talked about this in class (I think you took here class?), but I would definitely talk to Anne Curzan as a source. She literally knows everything there is to know about the English language!

  3. I’m also interested to see what else you find. I find it interesting that people used to actually check out dictionaries from their libraries and (presumably) read them as a means for social betterment. I think narrowing your focus to the dictionary was a good idea and will get you enough data and reveal a lot

  4. Nice post! I really liked how you trace what could be a very interesting premise for your paper. It might be helpful to read (and critique) some studies that correlate size of vocabulary a person’s lifetime income. I think there is data to show that increased vocabulary leads to increased income, thus backing up your assumption. Check out this article:

    One really important quote: “For better or worse, people will make judgments about you based on the size of your vocabulary and how accurately you use words.”

    I don’t know how “scholarly” this book is, but it hopefully will provide some insight into a possibly helpful argument you can use to support your thesis. Just a thought!

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