Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Eric A. Anchimbe (University of Munich)

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Thomas Jefferson and the new American language

Jessica Walker (University of Western Australia)



This paper seeks to address briefly the problems of ‘American’ identity, specifically linguistic identity, in the wake of the American Revolution, and the debates that raged over the use of the English language in the United States during the lifetime of Thomas Jefferson.(1) Some work has previously been done on the political significance that the founding fathers of the United States apparently attached to particular word and expression changes, and a little has been written on the role of archaic forms of the English language in the manipulation of those word changes (see Frantzen, 1947). There has, however, been a lack of detailed enquiry into the neologism debates, specifically as they occurred within the context of the national identity crisis that followed the independence from the British nation. This paper focuses on the significance of the idea that the nation in whose interest Jefferson and his colleagues were acting was completely new - a country and a national identity with no history, no system of precedence. The English colony in America had tradition and history. The native and foreign populations in America had their own traditions and history, of course, but the new nation, the United States of America, was devoid of any history exclusively its own before the date of its inception. (For a lengthier discussion on the novelty of the United States as a political entity see (Wills, 1978)



On the 4 th July 1776 a document was signed by the revolutionary leaders of the American colony stating the intention of America to function as a separate and independent nation from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence represented a significant change of status for the rebellion against British dominance. The United States of America became an occupied nation state: an independent nation in its own right, but one lacking any independent cultural heritage. The revolution in America was not a local government throwing off colonial oppression but a rebellious colony fighting to carve off a piece of empire to create something new. The immense importance of America’s newly-proclaimed independence from Britain is crucial to our understanding of the huge problem, for Americans, of their lack of an independent culture. It was vitally important to their success in the war against England that they should be clearly identified as a separate nation, not only to quell doubting colonials, but also to secure foreign aid from France. Wills (1978) argues that for these reasons the term revolution rather than rebellion was so strongly adhered to from the earliest days of dissent. The American leaders could not afford to be branded as mere rebels, which in fact was a far more accurate description prior to the signing of the Declaration.

Having established themselves as an independent treaty-making entity, and one that sought an alliance with France, it would quickly become a great embarrassment to the new nation that they were so reliant on British culture. And the language was recognized as an integral part of that culture. An anonymous author wrote in the 1774 Royal American Magazine: "As Language is the foundation of science, and medium of communication among mankind, it demands our first attention [... ]" (Anon., 1774). Probably for this reason the English language was never written into the American Constitution, nor mentioned in any of the founding documents. America was simply not given an official language. The lack of an official language did not prevent the recognition of America as a predominantly English-speaking nation, although during the Revolutionary War official documents were often published in German and French as well as English.


Building an American identity on the English language

The problems of linguistic identity that America faced were compounded by the prominence that vernacular languages had achieved in Europe. Latin had not been exclusively valued since the fourteenth century, but the eighteenth century had seen the creation of a more level playing field for the classic and local tongues. In 1599 Samuel Daniel wrote:

And who in time knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue? To what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent,
T’enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What words in th’ yet unformed Occident
May come refin’d with th’ accents that are ours? (Daniel, 1599)

This association of national pride with the spread of the national language could not but influence the American educated class. In September 1780 John Adams wrote to the President of Congress:

It is not to be disputed that the form of government has an influence upon language, and language in its turn influences not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments, and manners of the people. The admirable models which have been transmitted through the world, and continued down to these days, so as to form an education of mankind from generation to generation, by those two ancient towns, Athens and Rome, would be sufficient, without any other argument, to show the United States the importance to their liberty, prosperity, and glory, of an early attention to the subject of eloquence and language. (Matthews, 1963).

How, he seems to be asking, can America build an empire that will stand the glorious test of time like Greece and Rome with a language that already bears another empire’s name? What contributions could be made that would allow American English to stand apart to an extent where it might be considered a new language? To John Adams America had the responsibility to spread the English language to replace French as the dominant language of the culturally refined, " Because the increased population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will force their language into general use [...]" (qtd Matthews, 1963)

There were too many obstacles to the total removal and replacement of English, not least of which was the fledgling culture Americans had already established, and the sentimental attachment to the language of their history. There was a limited debate on taking on another language as the official language of the country but it came to nothing. As Roger Sherman put it "It would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it was and make the English speak Greek." (qtd. Crawford, 1999).


The neologism debates: What language for America?

The question then became - how to establish American dominance of the language? The one thing all agreed on was that the English language in America could and should be far superior to that version spoken in England. America considered itself a " land of light and freedom" (Anon., 1774) that had unquestionable right to the " highest perfection" of English as well as "every other branch of human knowledge" (Anon., 1774). There appears to have been two basic schools of thought on how American English would be superior to British English. The first argued that American English would be more pure, more real; devoid of vulgar expressions and maintained by an official body according to the highest standards. John Adams was of this school, and he advocated an English equivalent of the Académie Français to protect American English. He wrote:

It is very remarkable, that although many learned and ingenious men in England have from age to age projected similar institutions for correcting and improving the English tongue, yet the government have never found time to interpose in any manner [...] The honor of forming the first public institution for refining, correcting, improving and ascertaining the English language, I hope is reserved for congress [...] It will have a happy effect upon the union of the States to have a public standard for all persons in every part of the continent to appeal to. (Matthews, 1963)

Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary, was firmly opposed to taking a British standard of English, because of the degeneration of the language in that country:

Britain is at too great a distance to be our model and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue [...] The taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language already on the decline. (Webster, 1789)

The second school of thought came to be known as the school of Neology. Proponents of this school held that, like the new American state, the language, although initially similar, was breaking away from the mother tongue. In 1781 John Witherspoon coined the expression ‘Americanisms’ in the fifth of a series of articles in the Pennsylvania Journal:

The first class I call Americanism, by which I understand an use of phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences, even among persons of rank and education, different from the use of the same terms or phrases, or the construction of similar sentences in Great Britain. (qtd. Matthews, 1963)

The use of Americanisms he carefully added must not be interpreted as lack of knowledge of the rules of the language or illiterateness but rather as fruits of the American way of life and patterns of speech. He cautioned:

It does not follow, from a man’s using these, that he is ignorant, or his discourse upon the whole inelegant; nay, it does not follow in every case that the terms or phrases used are worse in themselves, but merely that they are of American and not of English growth. (Matthews, 1963)

To consolidate the use of Americanisms Noah Webster proposed that the spelling system of English be reformed to give American English a unique appearance in print. He was no more worried about the degeneracy of the language in Great Britain or the distance between America and the former colonist but rather about giving America a linguistic identity that matched its newly attained national identity. He saw it a marvelous opportunity to incorporate the common spelling errors into a standard that would be purely American.

The question now occurs, ought the Americans to retain these faults which produced innumerable inconveniences in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses and introduce an order, and regularity into the orthography of the American tongue? [...] A capital advantage of this reform [...] would be, that it would make a difference between the English orthography and the American [...] a national language is a band of national union. [...] Let us seize the present moment, and establish a national language as well as a national government.

As the present state of the language used by Americans shows, the opportunity identified by Webster was in fact seized. Today American English is not only unique in speech, like any of the other varieties, but also has a unique spelling system. The time had come for the actual use of some of these theories and proposals. Many neologisms were therefore created; others that had been in timid usage were encouraged.


Neologisms in early usage

The neologisms used by the early American presidents covered a broad range of subjects. Metcalf (2004) observes that George Washington is the first known user of bakery and indoors among many others and that John Adams was the first to write down the word caucus (although he certainly didn’t invent it). Metcalf argues that Jefferson made by far the biggest contribution to the permanent vocabulary of the language, adding such words as Anglophobia, electioneering, indecipherable and authentication.To Jefferson, neologism was more than a theoretical idea; he actually practiced the ideas and created usable new words that have survived until today.

Yet Jefferson was also determined to find a means to reconcile the purists to his position. He found the answer in a pre-Norman origin of the language. Jefferson became a dedicated promoter of the introduction into schools of an archaic form of the English language, Anglo-Saxon. So fond was he of this language that he himself wrote a treatise on its grammar and the virtues of its study for an understanding of modern English. Jefferson used Old English to address the problems of heritage inherent in the English language, seeking in Anglo-Saxon a tongue that pre-dated oppression in England and finding a history that Americans could own and be proud of independent of their recent masters. Jefferson believed that in time the English language would evolve into a uniquely American tongue:

Certainly so great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of production, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old... An American dialect will therefore be formed. (Jefferson, August 15, 1813)

He even speculated that in time "its new character may separate it in name as well as in power, from the mother-tongue" (Jefferson, August 15, 1813). Jefferson repeatedly implies that the language is being held back by the English governing authority, instead of being allowed to bloom into its full potential.

[...] this example may suffice to show what the language would become, in strength, beauty, variety, and every circumstance which gives perfection to language, were it permitted freely to draw from all its legitimate sources. (Jefferson, August 15, 1813)

This excerpt is a great criticism against the ruling authority that they have imposed guidelines that appear to prohibit the adoption of new words and regional use. America is contrasted favorably as a land of freedom where such new words and regional usage are not only allowed but also encouraged as a source of identity. In Jefferson’s own words to Waldo (1813): "Here, where all is new, no innovation is feared which offers good [...]"

Jefferson claims American superiority of England by these criticisms is enhanced by the extent to which he associates superior neology with superior science. Consider the following:

Without it [neology] we should still be held to the vocabulary of Alfred or of Ulphilas; and held to their state of science also; for I am sure they had no words which could have conveyed the ideas of oxygen, cotyledons, zoophytes, magnetism, electricity, hyaline, and thousands of others expressing ideas not then existing nor of possible communication in the state of their language. (Jefferson, 1820).(2)

Thus neology is linked to the progression of society. By contrasting the success of the developing American language with the restrictions placed upon the existing language by the English, Jefferson clearly imagines America at the forefront of future development.

Jefferson’s personal study of Anglo-Saxon had given him the clear impression that the use of neologisms was an integral part of the early English language. In the following passage he makes very clear his belief in the Anglo-Saxon origins of English. He explicitly tells us that it supported the use of neologisms and likens it to the Greek language, raising Anglo-Saxon to the level of the classics.

We may safely repeat the affirmation, therefore, that the pure Anglo-Saxon constitutes at this day the basis of our language. That it was sufficiently copious for the purposes of society in the existing condition of arts and manners, reason alone would satisfy us from the necessity of the case. Its copiousness, too, was much favored by the latitude it allowed of combining primitive words so as to produce any modification of idea desired. In this characteristic it was equal to the Greek, but it is more especially proved by the actual fact of the books they have left us in the various branches of history, geography, religion, law, and poetry. (Bergh, 1905)

Clearly Jefferson thought that one of the virtues of Anglo-Saxon was that it allowed, and indeed welcomed, neologisms and other innovations. Language, he realized, is open to change, and change is not necessarily a destruction of the language, as the purists seemed to say. In looking for answers to issues involving neologisms, he went back to Old English (Anglo-Saxon), which represents not only pre-colonialism but also freedom in language usage. This freedom was not to be limited to language usage alone but became a symbol of the American state, one spread by this language they had now adapted to fit it.



In the aftermath of the War of Independence, America’s leaders fought to establish a unique national culture for the ex-colony. Amongst the problems facing them was the problem of linguistic identity. In the preceding century vernacular language had played an increasingly important role throughout all the European nations, and for the English the spread of their language throughout the new world was a matter of national pride. For America their language marked them too clearly as a possession of England’s empire; and yet there seemed to no alternative available to them.

Thomas Jefferson was at the forefront of the linguistic debates that ensued. His was the guiding hand that found solutions to apparently insoluble problems. His authorship of the Declaration itself is still held up as one of the finest pieces of statesmanship in history, and yet his struggle to dissociate the language he used from the language of his enemy goes ever unremarked.

The contributions of Jefferson to English as it is known in America today are worthy of more extensive remarks than can be made here. America’s leaders were divided sharply into those who wanted American English to be distinguished for its purity, and those who believed that "American" (as they hoped English would one day be called) should be distinguished for its diversity and its capacity for the creation of new words to meet the changing needs of science and the arts - that is its neology. Jefferson looked back in English history to the Anglo-Saxon origins of the English language for a precedent for neology that would satisfy the purists. He found in Anglo-Saxon a ‘truer’ version of English, and a language that apparently pre-dated oppression in England. Old English, Jefferson argued, represented the linguistic history that Americans could own and be proud of, independent of their recent colonial masters.

A brief and poignant epilogue to these debates is found today in the big European cities, where guidebooks are available in many languages. Each one of these guides is marked with a little flag to indicate which language it is written in. An English flag traditionally marks the English guidebook but increasingly an American flag appears beside it. In the foyer of many hotels in the world the guidebooks continuously mark English solely with an American flag. The American touch might have been appealing to the founding fathers who hoped that one day the language would be known not as English but as American.

© Jessica Walker (University of Western Australia)


(1) For reasons of clarity I will use the expression ‘American Colonies’ until the 4 th July 1776, and ‘United States of America’ after this date. I do not intend to imply by this that a neat and complete transition from the former to the latter was made on this day, but rather that it is a useful symbolic date for the transition, which of course took place over a somewhat longer timeframe. For detail on the dating of this transition see Wills (1978)

(2) Alfred was a Saxon king of England and Ulphilas the supposed author of the only written Gothic known to us, so Jefferson is naming very early versions of the English language indeed.


Anon. (1774) The Royal American Magazine, or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement, Boston.

Bergh, A. and Lipscomb, Andrew (ed.) (1905) The writings of Thomas Jefferson. Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States.

Crawford, J. (1999) Bilingual education: History, politics, theory and practice. Bilingual Educational Services.

Daniel, S. (1599) The poetical essays of Samuel Daniel. Waterson.

Frantzen, A. J. (1947) Desire for origins: New language, old English, and teaching the tradition. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers.

Jefferson, T. (1820) Letter to John Adams of Massachussetts. Monticello.

Jefferson, T. (August 15, 1813) Letter to John Waldo. Monticello.

Matthews, M. (1963) The beginnings of American English. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Metcalf, A. (2004) Presidential voices: Speaking styles from George Washington to George W. Bush. Haughton Mifflin.

Webster, N. (1789) An essay on the necessity, advantages, and practicality of reforming the mode of spelling and of rendering the orthography of words correspondent to pronunciation. Dissertations on the English Language: with notes, historical and critical. Boston.

Wills, G. (1978) Inventing America, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. New York: Doubleday & Company.

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront

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