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A Wonderful World of Words

October 3, 2014
By Heidi Maness Hartwiger - Natural Parent, Natural Parent series , OVParent

Do you remember when you heard your baby's first word or a sound resembling a word? Whether it was Mama, Dada, doggie, kitty or the dreaded NO, your heart overflowed with the joy of communication. Some babies make the verbal leap into our word world sooner than others thus creating an unspoken rivalry in mommy groups involving babies and sentence building.

Why rush people words? I believe in a time of baby language and special understanding before they begin to speak "our words." So for me, the crossover was always bittersweet. It rekindled memories of my favorite chapter, "John and Barbara's Story" in P.L.Travers' classic, "Mary Poppins."

The twins, John and Barbara, easily converse with Mr. Starling who sits upon the windowsill. At one point, John ruminates about their siblings' lack of understanding concerning communication. He continues, "Why, only last Monday I heard Jane remark that she wished she knew what language the Wind spoke." Barbara adds that their older brother Michael is unaware that Mr. Starling "speaks exactly the same language as we do."

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Eventually Mr. Starling's prediction came true. The fateful day arrived as the twins crossed over into the language of people.

"'Oh well -I knew it would. Always told 'em so. But they wouldn't believe it.' He remained silent for a little while staring at the cots."

Just like John and Barbara, our babies eventually enter the wonderful world of words -so many words and so much to learn about the power of words. The more I've learned about Noah Webster's belief in the power of words, the more I champion him. Now with information overload, amazing Mr. Webster seems lost in the shuffle. During Revolutionary War times, he taught in a one room school in rural upper New York State. It is believed Mr. Webster did not embrace the educational philosophy of the times, "Spare the rod... spoil the child." Rather, he thought children should be encouraged to learn without fear of the rod.

During this era, memorization and recitation were paramount for a good education. This meant it was not necessary for would-be scholars to understand the words they were reciting. From all accounts, Webster had a revolutionary heart beating in his chest and moved away from memorization toward reading. He thought spelling was key to better reading.

While he created a spelling book, he took the opportunity to break away from British spelling and to introduce Americanized spelling of some words. This speller was called "The Blue-Backed Speller." This speller, which aided in pronunciation, remained popular and was used until the publication of the McGuffey Reader at the end of the 1800s.

As Webster moved through life, he realized some wished to plagiarize his work. Although individual copyrights were available from the states, he got the ball rolling for a federal copyright law. In addition to founding Amherst College, he founded and edited a newspaper in New York.

Although Webster was a man of many talents and interests, we remember him for the dictionary. It is believed that he spent a quarter of a century gathering words and researching their origins. According to records, his first dictionary was published in 1828. This book, which moved our fledgling nation toward a standardized vocabulary, contained approximately 70,000 words. After Webster died, his family sold the dictionary rights to the Merriam Company, hence the Merriam-Webster dictionary of today.

Would Noah Webster cheer the easy access of online dictionaries? Perhaps ... however, I think he would smile as he observed children and adults turn the pages of dictionaries discovering new words along the way to locating "the word in question."

Whether for spelling or for definitions, dictionary use should become a way of life in every home.

Take a minute during your next library visit to peruse the dictionary section. The numbers and varieties of dictionaries are amazing. There are dictionaries for every age, including preschoolers.

"My First Dictionary," Betty Root, (DK Children Publishing, 2014) is mainly a picture dictionary. "Merriam-Webster Dictionary for Children" (2010), a good starter dictionary, is useful for kids 8 and older. This transitional dictionary is a balance of pictures and text. "Merriam-Webster Elementary Dictionary" (2013) is for older school children. The noticeable change in this dictionary is fewer pictures and more substantial text. Of course, there are periodically revised, higher level dictionaries.

In my fourth-grade year, we were required to purchase personal dictionaries.

We brought our money to the teacher and received our copies of "Thorndike Century Junior Dictionary."

I still have that dictionary published in 1942. After "instructions to the teacher," there is a little forward from Mr. Thorndike for elementary school students. In the statement he says: "This book has been written for you, to help you learn the meanings, spelling, and pronunciation of words. If you find anything in it which is not helpful, I shall be glad if you will write and tell me." We thought he had personally autographed each dictionary. Don't you know, for months, my friends and I pored over our dictionaries hoping to find something NOT helpful - but we never did. We fourth-graders so wanted to write letters of grievance to Mr. E.L. Thorndike.

Where does the time go? Your baby just said " cookie," and now you post weekly spelling lists on the refrigerator. All too soon, homework will include defining words and creating sentences incorporating those words. Noah Webster is with you, cheering you on. The more you know him, the more you will like him! Is it a coincidence Noah Webster's birthday and National Dictionary Day both fall on Oct. 16? Pour the milk, pass the cookies and open the dictionary. Close your eyes, point your finger, then open your eyes and read the word under your fingertip. Have fun - use that word in a way pleasing to Noah Webster on his birthday. The word beneath my index finger is "grab." Is there a way I can use it to "grab" Mr. Webster's attention on his birthday?

- Heidi Maness Hartwiger, a Wheeling native, is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is the author of six books, including her most recent, a novel titled "Fire in Progress." She is a mother of four and a grandmother of five.



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