Language is the medium of political identity. Jill Lepore’s A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States testifies to this thesis. It contains biographical and historical sketches of men who altered how Americans communicated during the first sixty years of the nation. The results, she finds, either helped to link together Americans in the nation’s swiftly expanding territories or to alienate segments of the population.
Lepore focuses on seven men. Noah Webster sought to foster a specifically “American” language by regularizing spelling and compiling a dictionary, efforts that were largely successful although did not eliminate regional factionalism, as he hoped. William Thornton sought to bring about international understanding by devising a universal alphabet for all languages. George Guess (Sequoyah) invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language, which encouraged part of the Cherokee nation to become culturally separate from the United States. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet created a sign language for the deaf; it partially ended their isolation but did not fulfill his hope of becoming a “natural” universal language. Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, an African prince kidnapped into slavery in America, used his knowledge of Arabic and Islam to prove he was civilized but not American; he thereby won his release and contributed to the debate about the identity and treatment of slaves. Samuel Morse developed a telegraph system and simple code that enabled rapid communication to all parts of the nation and abroad. Alexander Graham Bell, in addition to inventing the telephone, championed efforts to teach the deaf to speak English, rather than to sign, and so become integrated members of society.
Lepore assembles a fascinating group of stories, told in a discursive, anecdotal fashion. The emphasis throughout is on the political and social affects of innovation. Technical details receive cursory attention. Although her unifying idea is sometimes hazy, she shows readers how important the very shapes of words and sounds have been to nationalism.