Spelling Across the Atlantic
Everyone knows that spelling (and life) are a little different across the pond. But how did these spelling differences come about in the first place? Why, for example, do we add a u to honour in the Commonwealth and spell kerb as curb in North America?
Many people assume that because British English is older, its spellings must be older too. They may even consider British spelling to be more correct as a result. However, the real story is far more complicated and involves the printing press, a heated debate, and (to a small extent) Benjamin Franklin.
Spelling conventions are really the product of two things: widespread usage norms (how people spell generally) and reference texts like dictionaries. Documents and instructional guides on the proper use of language have existed for thousands of years, but until relatively recently, they were only useful to the few people who were in charge of producing written texts. There was no standard spelling because there was little need for one; Middle or early Modern English spellings seem bizarre to the modern reader. Spellings like little as lytell and fruit as fruyte were common.1 Many spellings differed from writer to writer; even Shakespeare seemed unconcerned with consistency: here he is using both he and hee as spellings for he in the same breath:
I that’s a colt indeede, for he doth nothing but talke of his horse, and hee makes it a great appropriation to his owne good parts that he can shoo him himselfe: I am much afraid my Ladie his mother plaid false with a Smyth.
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1623), 1.2.233-237
However, the printing press changed all this. As the technology became more widely available and cheaper, more people began to read and write, and so spelling had to become more standardized. It was no longer enough to improvise—your newspaper means nothing if people can’t understand it! But while the Académie française was established in 1634 as the definitive authority on French, no such institution was created for English. The door was left open to multiple competing positions on just what constituted correct spelling.2
The debate on just how to regularize spelling was ongoing when the first British colonists arrived in North America. At the time, there was no fixed standard, and the intellectual authorities were certainly confined to the home country. As the colonists set up their printing presses and produced their first pamphlets, they bore witness to the British discussions. However, as the printed word became even more widely available, the concern about spelling increased and so did the demand for reference texts, both in Britain and in North America.
In response to this need, the first widely used dictionaries appeared in Britain at the turn of the eighteenth century.3 Those who claim that British spelling is older may be surprised to learn that some of the spellings in these dictionaries would be considered American today. For example, the 1785 edition of the Englishman Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary contains cauterize, usually spelled with -ise in modern Britain.4
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there was general conformity to the variable British standard, with gracious nods to the excellence of British education and thought. In 1782, the American Noah Webster published his first book, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It contained no hint of his later push for uniquely American spellings. He even introduces Johnson’s dictionary as “the most approved authority in the language!” After the American Revolution, however, Webster underwent a radical change in belief about spelling, entering the debate by arguing that it should totally correspond with the pronunciation. This resulted in his later proposal to reform the whole writing system into a uniquely American one—the Revolution seems to have come at the right point in the spelling debate. Webster writes in 1789 (in a work dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, with whom he frequently discussed matters of language):
I once believed that a reformation of our orthography would be unnecessary and impracticable. This opinion was hasty; being the result of a slight examination of the subject. I now believe with Dr. Franklin that such a reformation is practicable and highly necessary.
Noah Webster in his Dissertations on the English Language (1783)
Some of his proposed reforms included greef for greif, kee for key, bred for bread, proov for prove, and blud for blood. In later writings, Webster even spells is as iz. Not all of Webster’s phonetic respellings made it into his 1806 dictionary (he toned it down), even though some, like masheen (machine), did.5 His most important contribution to orthography, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1806. This dictionary is where most uniquely American spellings (like color for colour) find their origins: from both the desire to make spelling more phonetic and the desire to assert the presence of an American (English) language. However, not even a radical can completely transform widespread usage; that would “proov” too difficult.
So, if the American Revolution had occurred at a later time—at a different point in the discussion—we might have seen a different outcome. Indeed, other British colonies like Canada and Australia have their own spelling norms that reflect each nation’s unique relationship with Great Britain. Canada, for example, had closer ties to Great Britain for a much longer period of time compared to the United States. There is a specific pattern of usage associated with Canada that has some American spellings (curb, democratize) and more British spellings (colour, centre ). Canadian spelling reflects the dual influence of America and Britain, along with Canada’s specific linguistic and societal identities (markedly different than the American ones).
Of course, while all this was going on in North America, Britons were forming their own lexicographic tradition. While modern British spelling is harder to trace back to one dictionary or one person, forms like -our stayed in the popular usage and were endorsed by the available reference works. Dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary (published starting in 1884) helped to cement spellings that were thought to be truer to English’s French origins.4,6 Of course, this is not the only reason that the spellings remained different. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015) emphasizes the “great national pride concerning long held [orthographic] traditions”.7
British and American spelling differences are mainly the result of two different conclusions drawn from the same debate. The problem of how to spell has existed from the first time anyone cared about it—especially after the rise of printing and the need arose for reference works that could supply writers and editors with “correct” forms.
The history of spelling differences across the pond is also a history of how technology and politics can transform language. This transformation is still happening today, the digital age having brought about its fair share of changes. Tools like Antidote have helped some parts of the language become more standard as they remind language users of accepted usages, while still preserving regional variants. And the prevalence of autocorrect means that today, nobody’s phone would let them get away with spelling machine, “masheen!”
Weiner, Edmund. “Early Modern English Pronunciation and Spelling.” OED Online, (2012). Retrieved January 27, 2022. ↩
Anson, Chris M. (1990). Errours and Endeavors: A Case Study in American Orthography. International Journal of Lexicography, 3(1), pp. 35-63. Retrieved January 27, 2022. ↩
Simpson, John. “The First Dictionaries of English.” OED Online, (2012). Retrieved January 27, 2022. ↩
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. London, W. Strahan, 1773. ↩ ↩
“-Or.” In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 27, 2022. ↩
“History of the OED.” OED Online. Retrieved January 27, 2022. ↩
Butterfield, Jeremy, Ed. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2015. ↩
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