The Battle for American English

Courtney working at computer

Funding Source

Students

2019
College

Faculty

David Boies Professor of History

Project Summary

This summer, using the funds from the Jumpstart for Juniors Research Grant, I was able to travel to New Haven and New York City to access crucial documents for my thesis in American History. These materials help demonstrate my argument that constructing an Americanized version of the English language was one of the battlefields in which conservative and liberal Congregationalists fought for social dominance in the early nineteenth century.

At the New York Public Library, I was given access to nineteenth century newspaper clippings, which had been scaled down and reproduced on microfilm for preservation. Gaining familiarity with reading microfilms was an invaluable experience as it is a common necessity for historical research. At the Morgan Library in New York and the Yale Sterling Memorial Library, I learned to handle rare documents delicately and became more comfortable interacting with archivists.

My thesis is tracing the liberal/conservative language debate through the lexicographer Noah Webster, so the majority of my time at these libraries was spent reading letters exchanged between Webster and his family members or colleagues. The ability to do this will be a crucial component of my thesis because it allowed me to gather insight into Webster’s opinions and beliefs that would not be possible just from reading published materials. Additionally, by reading Webster’s personal copies of his manuscripts, I was able to see the notes scrawled into the columns or definitions that ultimately did end up in his published dictionaries.

Being able to interact with knowledgeable archivists in person was one of the most rewarding parts of this research experience. When I traveled to New Haven, I had planned on conducting my research only at the New Haven Museum and Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library; however, after explaining my project to the archivists, they led me to other valuable resources. In accordance with their suggestions, I spent the last day of my trip to New Haven viewing letters in Yale’s Beinecke Library, finding further evidence for my thesis.

Before this summer, I had no experience handling rare documents or using microfilms. The Jumpstart for Juniors Grant provided me with the opportunity to learn these crucial research skills while still an undergraduate. I feel prepared that I have gathered the necessary evidence to craft a persuasive thesis, and moving forward, I have gained necessary confidence in my abilities to conduct academic research.