The Grammar Battle That Followed the American Revolution

When America achieved independence from England, it threw off many of its inherited English ways in order to form a new identity. But there was one way it was still very much tied to the old country—language. Certainly, by 1776, Americans had developed a new idiom with its own accent and vocabulary, but people still looked to England for proper linguistic guidance. When John Adams suggested forming an academy “for correcting, improving, and fixing the English language,” he thought it should follow British custom, explaining “We have not made war against the English language any more than against the old English character.”

As Rosemarie Ostler recounts in her new book Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language, Noah Webster, who went on the create America’s first dictionary, wanted America to look to itself for linguistic guidance. He thought, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics—as famous for arts as for arms,” and he began a lively battle for linguistic independence.

Before the Revolution, people learned grammar through classic British primers that were based in fusty Latin rules that didn’t really fit English. They enshrined Latin-inspired rules that weren’t much in popular use, such as saying “It is I” instead of “It is me” and “I am taller than he” instead of "I am taller than him." They forbid the stranding of prepositions and the use of who and whose for inanimate objects (so, “This is the book the pages of which are badly stained” instead of “This is the book whose pages are badly stained”).

Webster wanted to show the “true state” of English. Starting with his 1783 A Grammatical Institute of the English Language and culminating with his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, he sought to eliminate moldy, unsensible rules and spellings and replace them with vigorous American ones. 

Some of his suggestions stuck—we replaced Ouisconsin with Wisconsin, colour with color, and musick with music. But his grammar suggestions fared less well. His pleas to sanction “It’s me” and “Who do you speak to” were rejected as more popular, British-leaning, grammar books became widespread in schools. His dictionary was attacked as vulgar and degenerate.

But it survived and became an accepted authority (now Merriam-Webster), and there are few style guides or grammar books these days that outright reject “it’s me.” And while we never came anywhere close to accepting "Was you there when the gun was fired?" other suggestions from Webster have slowly become standard. In the beginning his mission was revolutionary and rebellious, but in the end, language change will have its way.

Read more about the history of grammar rules in America in Rosmarie Ostler's Founding Grammars.

NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]


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