Folks I Admire: William Shakespeare & Noah Webster

Today features two twists from my Folks I Admire series: I will speak of the dead rather than the living, and one of those people I don’t admire for positive reasons. (I will stick to my limit of two entities per post, though.)

Are you a prescriptivist when it comes to language? Well, then you’re on the wrong side of history. Literally. I touched on that on Monday, when I talked about how language is an expression of the fashion and culture of the time—and that’s because of Shakespeare and Webster.

I admire William Shakespeare for his inescapable cultural and linguistic contributions—he’s to memetic influence that Genghis Khan is to genetic influence. I don’t feel like I need to belabor the point here, but certainly check out the list of words he made up. How many do you take for granted as being natural elements on our language? Yeah.

English is a memetic squatters paradise. Create a series of phonemes that resonate with a cultural meaning at the time, and you’ve captured minds. If it’s strong enough, it transcends cycles—generations, business changes, fashion trends—and becomes a word accepted among the culture by large.

That’s Shakespeare. We know Shakespeare—which is, honestly, a big chunk of the point. Now let’s talk about that brilliant, devious fuck of a human[1], Noah Webster. You know how Americans and Everyone Else-ians pointlessly argue about whether there’s a ‘u’ in “color/colour?”[2] You can “thank/thaunk” Noah Fucking Webster, forger of American cultural identity.

It’s worth a dive in his Wikipedia page for a bit about his politics and how he executed them through his American Speller, but in short: he’s a memetic hacker centuries before his time. He taught a new nation how to spell with his books, and intentionally changes ways of spelling in order to create a separate American identity.

It fucking worked. I admire the shit out of that. Hell, had I know about this in 2011, I would have mentioned Noah Webster as a Technocrat, probably a significant player in the Ivory Tower, in Convention Book. N.W.O. Certainly, I was touching on those ideas in the book—the bits about the Collegia of Linguistics were important to me, because that was around when I started diving into amateur linguistics beyond being a professional writer/editor.

So yeah, if you’re a prescriptivist, Noah Webster is laughing in his grave because you’re exactly what he needed from people to forge the current American climate of “two nations separated by a common languages.”

– Ryan

(This post brought to you by the fact that Friday is a crappy day to do another Katanas & Trenchcoats leak, certainly the Friday of Emerald City Comicon.)

[1] Said with a respectful, awed tone.

[2] Modern answer: Without-u is better because it’s fewer characters on Twitter. But then that also irritates “language purists” who hate things like “thru” and “r u there?” (To be fair, I also kinda hate those, because they remind me of people I knew who reveled in ignorance because they thought it would be more culturally acceptable than showing off being smart.)

[2a] Though, we Americans don’t get cool ads like “We put the U in colour.”