Planning the American language: Federal English

Dennis E. Baron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although the English language has been the object of deliberate planning efforts for centuries, we tend to think of language planning in terms of other languages because the schemes to direct or correct the course of English have always fizzled out. Users of the language frequently express their fear that English will decay and die without adequate regulation, yet they continually resist attempts to plan the spelling, grammar, and vocabulary of the language. The New World offered language planners the chance to mold English into a more perfect form. By the end of the eighteenth century, regional variation in pronunciation and usage within the thirteen colonies was obvious and provided material for humor as well as for serious linguistic description. At the same time, the political ferment that accompanied the Revolution and the establishment of a federal system of government made language a political issue. Attempts were made to steer American English toward or away from British norms. Both Congress and the schools were enlisted in language planning efforts. Joining forces with the political zealots were those more genteel reformers whose aim was to perfect language whenever and wherever possible. Noah Webster developed and elaborated the concept of Federal English, a uniform American dialect that was to be the product of a reformed spelling system. Webster felt that Federal English would encourage literary production and ensure the cultural and political independence of the United States. Federal English, the form of the language that bore the stamp of democracy and revolution, has become in the present century Standard American English, an equally vague and expressive notion for both the actual and ideal state of the American language, a language whose fine points have never been definitely fixed. Like Federal English, the term Standard English is used as a political and social rallying cry, and it has not altered to any great extent the popular or official notions of what the American language is or ought to be.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)239-250
Number of pages12
JournalLanguage Problems and Language Planning
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1981

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Linguistics and Language


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