Noah Webster (1758-1843) was the man of words in early 19th-century America. He compiled a dictionary which became the standard for American English; he also compiled The American Spelling Book, which was the basic textbook for young readers in early 19th-century America.
In the beginning part of his American Spelling Book, several signed a ‘Recommendation,’ stating, “Having examined the first part of the new Grammatical Institute of the English Language, published by Mr. Noah Webster we are of opinion, that it is far preferable, in the plan and execution, to Dilworth’s or any other Spelling Book, which has been introduced into [o]ur schools.”
“In these the entire omission of the rules of pronunciation is a capital defect, which very few of the parents, schoolmasters or mistresses, employed in teaching children the first rudiments have sufficient knowledge to supply.”
“The usual method of throwing together, in the same tables, and without any mark of distinction, words in which the same letters are differently pronounced, and the received rules of dividing syllables, which are wholly arbitrary, and often unnatural, seem calculated to puzzle the learner, and mislead the instructor into a vicious pronunciations.”
“These defects and mistakes are judiciously supplied in the present work, and the various additions are made with such propriety, that we judge this new Spelling Book will be extremely beneficial for the use of schools.”
The Speller’s Preface notes the priority in learning, “The syllables of words are divided as they are pronounced, and for this obvious reason, that children learn the language by the ear. Rules are of no consequence but to printers and adults. In Spelling Books they embarrass children, and double the labour of the teacher.”
“The whole design of dividing words into syllables at all, is to lead the pupil to the true pronunciation: and the easiest method to effect this purpose will forever be the best.” (Webster’s Speller)
And so it was with the American Protestant Missionaries teaching the Hawaiians to read and write their own language.
This exercise, as practiced in Hawai‘i, was described by Andrews, “The teacher takes a Piapa (i.e., speller, primer,) sits down in front of a row or several rows of scholars, from ten to a hundred perhaps in number, all sitting on the ground, furnished perhaps with Piapas, perhaps not.”
“The teacher begins: says A. The scholars all repeat in concert after him, A. The teacher then says E. They repeat all together, as before E, and so on, repeating over and over, after the teacher, until all the alphabet is fixed in the memory, just in the order the letters stand in the book; and all this just as well without a book as with one. The abbs and spelling lesson are taught in the same way.” (Andrews; Schultz)
Just as American schoolchildren spelled aloud by naming the letters that formed the first syllable, and then pronouncing the result: “b, a – ba,” so did Hawaiian learners. (However, back then, Webster used ‘y’ as a vowel; the missionaries did not.)
The Hawaiian version also used the names of the letters and the resultant syllable: bē ā – bā; by 1824, this had become the Hawaiian word for ‘alphabet’. However, after b had been eliminated from the alphabet, p took its place in this new name.
One result of applying this methodology to Hawaiian is that it produced a new word: Pi a pa. From that time on, the word for ‘alphabet’ has been pī‘āpā, first appearing with this spelling (minus the kahakō and ‘okina) in a book title in 1828.
The purpose of all these first exercises was to teach the mechanics of pronouncing words, one by one – syllable by syllable.
This is how Ka‘ahumanu learned … “Being invited to enter the house, we took our seats without the accommodation of chairs, and waited till the game of cards was disposed of, when the wish was expressed to have us seated by her.”
“We gave her ladyship one of the little books (Pi a pa – the speller,) and drew her attention to the alphabet, neatly printed, in large and small Roman characters.”
“Having her eye directed to the first class of letters – the five vowels, she was induced to imitate my voice in their enunciation, a, e, i, o, u.”
“As the vowels could be acquired with great facility, an experiment of ten minutes, well directed, would ensure a considerable advance.”
“She followed me in enunciating the vowels, one by one, two or three times over, in their order, when her skill and accuracy were commended. Her countenance brightened.”
“Looking off from her book upon her familiars, with a tone a little boasting or exulting, and perhaps with a spice of the feeling of the Grecian philosopher, who, in one of his amusements, thought he had discovered the solution of a difficult problem, leaped from the bath, exclaiming “Eureka! I have found,” the queen exclaimed, “Ua loaa iau! I have got it”, or, it is obtained by me.”
“She had passed the threshold, and now unexpectedly found herself entered as a pupil.”
“Dismissing her cards, she accepted and studied the little book, and with her husband, asked for forty more for their attendants.” (Bingham)
The image shows Webster’s way of learning to spell, starting with repeating the consonant ‘b’ with the respective vowels b, a – ba – just as the Hawaiians did as pi, a – pa.
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