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The Grammar Battle That Followed the American Revolution

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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.

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Courtesy of Freeman's
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History
For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
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Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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