Friday, May 25, 2012

Noah Webster: Founding Father of Political Correctness

The phrase "political correctness" may have been coined within the last few decades, but the concepts behind it and the initial attempts to put them in action may be found in the earliest years of our country.  Noah Webster is best remembered for compiling the eponymous dictionary.  That dictionary, its methodology, and intent are pure PC.

Webster believed that the United States not only needed to be politically independent of the British, but further that this independence would only be complete if it was fully cultural as well.  The British governmental system was pregnant with basic social values -- people are divided into higher and lower classes, the power and wealth was to be unevenly distributed based on this split, the powerful have the right to dictate every aspect of life to the less powerful.  This was not an unusual view to hold, but Webster took an additional step -- the problematic social values were contained in the language and as long as Americans spoke the British language, we would be unconsciously buying into their morally problematic cultural ethic.  If we are to be us, to be fully liberated, then we must have our own language, our own English, not the King's English, but the American people's English.

And so Webster took an American approach.  Where the King's English was a set of formal rules and meanings grammatically imposed upon the people with the power of the name of the monarch, American English would come democratically from the people, documented as was actually spoken.  Instead of being an authority that dictates what words mean and how they are used, it would instead be an empirically-based document that describes what colonial speakers mean by the words and how they use them. 

This is a striking precognition of the political correctness movement of the 80s and 90s in which language was seen as containing subconscious conceptual frameworks of subjugation put in place by an unequal power structure.  The way to liberate the oppressed was to reform the language so it no longer contained the old invisible connotations.  The next time you go to the dictionary to look up a word, realize that your action is intrinsically the hallmark of political correctness.