Illustration by Kati Szilagyi
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” — Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost
Picture, if you will, a furious middle-aged man wearing wooly gray pajamas, writing an angry letter.
“Not only is your article biased and full of generalizations, it is also devoid of journalistic rigor and lacking in moral fiber. It fulfills no purpose, has no sense of humor, and frankly borders on the libelous. Surely, sir, you could endeavor to at least familiarize yourself with the facts before you vandalize them?”
Such a scene could only take place in America. Not because Britain has a shortage of snooty pedants — quite the opposite, we still own the patent — but because of the spelling. Over the other side of the pond, no less than 13 of the words in the first two paragraphs would be considered misspelt. I mean misspelled. Feel free to count them (unless you’re a middle-aged man wearing wooly gray pajamas, in which case you might want to give this article a miss).
For all its banality, spelling really does tend to bring out the flaming-torches-and-pitchforks side of human nature, like when French social media users adopted the hashtag #jesuiscirconflexe in response to a suggested dropping of the famous little hat used in words like fôret and maîtresse. It should come as no surprise that the spelling differences between British and American English are sufficient to drive many people into a frenzy. Colour or color? Theatre or theater? Do you take offence, or offense?
These tiny little orthographic differences are so much more than mere letters. Seemingly innocuous changes in spelling reflect reflect important cultural and political shifts. And when it comes to many of the differences between British and American English, we can thank a man whose compatriots called him “an incurable lunatic” and “a prostitute wretch,” a crusader for American exceptionalism whose dictionary is probably still on your parents’ bookshelf: Noah Webster.
“…if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.” — Noah Webster, A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings
Webster’s influence on American history extends far beyond his eponymous dictionary. His blue-backed speller books taught millions of children how to read and write, and shifted education towards the secular — there was no mention of God or the Bible. He inadvertently planted the seed for what we now call spelling bees. And his love of “noble, just, and independent sentiments of liberty and patriotism” lead him to focus on important moments of American civic and political life, moving away from an emphasis on Latin and Greek classics. Over time, alternative spellings started appearing in Webster’s spellers: centre became center, colour lost its u, and traveller dropped its double l. For Webster was working on an even larger project, one which would formalize the growing schism between American and British English: An American Dictionary of the English Language.
He published it in 1828 at the age of 70. It contained over 70,000 words — 30,000 more than Samuel Johnson’s famous work from 1755, which had set the standard for all dictionaries to come. And whereas Johnson was conservative, using traditional spellings such as publick, Webster was determined to reflect growing popular American usage. Why, he asked, do we adopt the French -re endings of many (but not all) words? “Such palpable inconsistencies, and preposterous anomalies do no honor to English literature, but very much perplex the student, and offend the man of taste.”
Reading Webster’s preface, it is striking how reasonable his arguments seem. He was neither an advocate nor an enemy of orthographic reform, but thought the “correct principle respecting changes of orthography seems to lie between these two extremes of opinion.” By and large, his changes reflected popular usage and a desire to dispense with archaisms and redundant letters. The u was dropped from favor and error; -ce endings became -se, as in pretense; and the -re endings of centre and metre became -er endings, as indeed many writers had used them for the preceding decades. Some suggestions failed to take root: both American and British English retain the final e of discipline and medicine, the b in doubt, and we do not talk about International Wimmin’s Day, the rise of the masheens, or our sons and dawters. As such, Webster’s impact reflects how successful spelling reforms usually change language — they codify shifts that are already taking place, rather than effecting revolutionary change.
“It is indeed a dull man who can think of but one way to spell a word.” — attributed to Mark Twain
There is arguably something rather democratic about the evolution of spelling. English in all its myriad forms cannot be bound by the will of a centralized authority, although many have tried. No less than President Theodore Roosevelt, who issued the government printing office with a list of 300 new spellings after being inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s Simplified Spelling Board, folded in the face of public ridicule and resistance. (Enuf is enuf, Mr Prezident!)
Not to be outdone, Britain’s Simplified Spelling Society was hard at work trying to clean up British spelling. George Bernard Shaw, a prominent member, was particularly hard on the apostrophe and wrote dont and mustnt in his plays. He left most of his will to the Society, exhorting them to come up not only with new spellings, but a whole new alphabet: Shavian.
Other larger-than-life reformers included Benjamin Franklin — who wanted to get rid of the letters c, j, q, w, x and y (and even enjoyed some support from Webster) — and the creator of the Dewey Decimal System, Melville Dewey. He had the menus of his health resort Lake Placid Club written in simplified spelling; one from 1927 promises, “Hadok, Poted beef with noodls, Parsli or Masht potato, Butr, Steamd rys, Letis and Ys cream.”
It’s fun to look back and giggle at what seem to be, in hindsight, ridiculous proposals. But to use the words of Christopher Upward, the man behind the Cut Spelling movement of 1996, “al languajs chanje in th corse of time.” In the era of text-speak, apostrophes are dying and vowels are diminishing (although much later than the reforms were proposed by people like Shaw and Upward). A century ago capital letters were ubiquitous; now no self-respecting startup wants one. One consequence of the explosion of new digital forms of text flowing around the world is rapid evolution and a splintering of traditional orthographic norms.
The apparent monoliths of “American spelling” and “British spelling” are really no more than umbrella terms, convenient categories that include thousands of minute variations, differing style guides and arbitrarily imposed rules — to say nothing of Scottish or Canadian or Australian or South African English. If a historian is just a prophet looking backwards, who is to say we won’t look back and marvel, a few centuries from now, at the prescience of these intrepid spelling revolutionaries?