Friday, February 11, 2005

British vs. American spelling

A history of theater vs. theatre. An excerpt:
It was almost 200 years ago that Connecticut lawyer and schoolmaster Noah Webster decided that America would spell words differently from the British, as, in many cases, we already were. In a series of influential dictionaries, like the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806, Webster decisively got rid of the extraneous u in colour and flavour, the unnecessary -me in programme, the second i in aluminium-and, following trends already in play by 1780 or so, he reversed the final two letters in many English words like centre and fibre and theatre.

To practical, hardworking Americans, Webster's plainer, more phonetic spellings came as a welcome relief; they just made more sense. Americans were especially happy to get rid of the -re suffix, a remnant from the Norman French who had invaded England in 1066. Nineteenth-century Americans started spelling centre "center," and fibre "fiber." They even started spelling theatre> "theater." If there was any big dispute about that at the time, it's not prominent in the history books.

It was profoundly successful. American spelling has conquered most of the English-speaking world. On the web in 2005, Webster's spellings are more popular than the original Franco-British spellings worldwide.
I can't vouch for much of that, but it sure is a good story.

(An aside: Every time I write "vouch," I end up spelling it "vouge" first. Then my brain sends up a signal: "Yoohoo, don't think that's right," and I realize my error. Are dictionaries starting to accept "vouge" or is Merriam-Webster's super-secret extended dictionary simply referring to this?)

(One more aside: Any of you watch "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"? Now anytime I say "yoohoo," I hear Meatwad calling, "Yoohoo, running crew!" to the Mooninites. Wonderful.)


At 1:47 AM, February 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That story was told just this week in a History Channel series, "The Adventure of English." I only caught parts of the series, but that bit in particular I thought was fascinating.

At 12:08 PM, February 11, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I caught part of that series, too, but it was the later stuff rather than the earlier stuff. I so wish I would started watching it from the beginning. Maybe they'll show it again sometime? I'll try to stay on top of that.

At 2:33 PM, February 11, 2005, Blogger cl said...

I've been Trumped into using "yoooge." As in, "Congrats to Susie for filling up that yooooooge wire section." Nobody at work has told me to stop, but I bet that's just a matter of time.

At 4:53 PM, February 11, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...


"The Apprentice" is one of the two shows I regularly watch (and the other, "The Amazing Race," just ended). I involuntarily roll my eyes every time he says that.

At 3:15 AM, February 12, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

My favorite "Apprentice" phrase:

"The dream job of a lifetime!"

At 6:53 AM, February 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting story, though the part you quote is a bit breathless for my liking. For example, I wonder how many 'practical, hardworking Americans' had access to or need of Webster's first dictionary.

"Doggonit, Mary, I work like a dog from sunrise till sundown. If only we didn't have that second i in aluminium."

Certainly in Britain at the time, a dictionary was a plaything of the rich.

And am I alone in detecting some sort of stereotyping at play in this breathless account? Hardworking Americans do away with unnecessary letters! Idle Europeans still cluttering their words with redundancies!

At 3:06 PM, February 14, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I'd agree with that; it does sound like an unfair characterization.

However, just last night I watched the "Adventure of English" episode that mentioned Webster's first speller, and I was surprised by the influence it had.

Melvyn Bragg said that Webster's "blue-backed speller" changed the sound of English for Americans, and that was part of his aim. He wanted to oppose the "clipped vowels of the English aristocracy." Thus, the different pronunciations of laboratory, etc.

With 60 million copies sold in its first 100 years, it became one of the most influential books in the history of English. America's East Coast began presenting itself as the guardian of the English language.

Bragg mentions a motion in the House of Representatives to invite the sons of the English aristocracy to America to learn how to speak properly.

It was tongue in cheek, I suppose, but it does illustrate a point.


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