Episode 336: September 13, 2012
by Mignon Fogarty
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Have you ever wondered why the British spell “color” with a “u” and Americans don’t? Or why the British spell “theater” with an “re” at the end and Americans spell it with an “er” at the end? We all know that these spelling differences exist, but not everyone knows why they exist. Today, we’re going to find out!
It turns out that Noah Webster of Webster’s dictionary fame is behind many, but not all, of the spelling differences between British and American English, and his reasons for making the changes were as much political and philosophical as linguistic. I was inspired to do this podcast by a book I just finished, called The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall. I know many of you reading are not Americans, but I hope you will indulge me and end up finding this story as interesting as I do.
Noah Webster lived smack in the middle of the time when Americans were still trying to form a country and figure out who they were. To give you some perspective, the United States Constitution was ratified between the time Webster published his first spelling book and when he started working on his famous dictionary.
Americans were eager to break with Britain as fully as possible and weren’t even sure that English should be the primary language. Nearly 10% of the population spoke German, so some people suggested German should be our language. Others proposed Hebrew, and others thought we should call our language Columbian.
“Zee” Versus “Zed”
Noah Webster's influence is why Americans call the final letter "zee" instead of "zed."
Webster undertook his first big project--an American spelling book to replace the British book schools were then using--in part, to settle the matter and convince people that our language should be English, but American English. It was in this book that he took small steps to begin creating American spellings. It was also in the speller that he taught Americans to pronounce the name of the final letter of the alphabet as “zee” instead of “zed” as the British do.
Political Rationale for Spelling Reform
Webster is best known now as the dictionary writer, but in his time he was involved in politics and knew George Washington and Benjamin Franklin quite well. He regularly wrote political essays, letters, and tracts, and early in his career, he felt that an American language was necessary to hold the county together. In his lectures, he criticized Americans for studying Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and German, but neglecting English; and he wrote, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics---as famous for arts as for arms.”
The Compendious Dictionary: “Color” Versus “Colour” and More
Before he wrote his big dictionary, he wrote a smaller book titled the Compendious Dictionary, and it was in this work that he really got rolling on spelling reform. For example,
He dropped the “u” from “colour,” “honour,” and “a few words of that class” as he called them in his introduction.
He changed “theatre” (re) to “theater "(er).
He substituted an “s” for the “c” in “defence," “offence,” and “pretence.”
He dropped the second “l” in words such as “travelled” and “cancelled.”
He changed the “s” to “z” in a few words such as “patronise.”
He also included changes that had already been suggested by others such as omitting the “k” from the end of “magic” and “logic” and spelling “risk” with a “k” instead of a “que” at the end.
Simplicity and Order
Besides political reasons, Webster also felt that he was creating linguistic order with his changes, and, in thrifty New England fashion, he made an argument that his spelling reforms would save money. In a 1789 essay, he wrote, “Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of the books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.”
Some critics thought he went too far with his reforms, and in later dictionaries, he undid some of the changes he had published. For example, he had omitted the final “e” in words such as “doctrine,” “discipline,” and “medicine”, and spelled “ache” as “ake,” “soup” as “soop,” “tongue” as “tung,” “women” as “wimmen,” and “weather” as “wether.” These changes were later reversed, although he sometimes included notes recommending what he would then call alternative spellings.
“Program” versus “Programme”
One change difference between British and American spelling that isn’t Webster’s doing is the British spelling of “programme.” According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage, it was spelled without the final “me,” as Americans spell it now, in both British and American English until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the British adopted the French “-me” spelling and Americans did not.
[Note that the British spell the word "program" when writing about computer programs.]
“Aluminum” versus “Aluminium”
A second difference we can’t attribute to Webster is the American “aluminum” versus the British “aluminium.” Both Fowler and Garners Modern American Usage note that Sir Humphrey Davy, a British chemist who discovered the element in 1812, gave it the name aluminum. Soon after, British writers suggested that it be changed to “aluminium” to match better the names of other elements such as “sodium” and “potassium.” Webster recorded it as Davy had named it, and British dictionaries later included it in their books as “aluminium.”
By the time he finished his dictionary, which took about 28 years to write, Webster no longer seemed driven by the idea of an American language. He had turned his attention to word origins and made arguments for his changes based on etymology. Nevertheless, he was the creator of many of the spellings that characterize American English today. His story is fascinating, and I’m sure many of you would enjoy reading more about his life and work.
Alego, John (ed). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 6 (2001) Cambridge University Press http://j.mp/R1tS7p (accessed September 13, 2012)
Burchfield, R.W. (ed). New Fowler's Modern English Usage, third edition. (1996) Oxford University Press.
Garner, Bryan. Garners Modern American Usage, third edition. (2009) Oxford University Press.
Kendall, Joshua. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. (2011) Putnam Adult.
Kovecses, Zoltan. American English, an Introduction (2000) Broadview Press: Orchard Park, NY http://j.mp/R1tEgK
Webster, Noah. “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation," Dissertations on the English Language: With Notes, Historical and Critical, to Which is Added, by Way of Appendix, an Essay on a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Dr. Franklin’s Arguments on That Subject (Boston. 1789). pp. 391. 393-98. 405-6.
http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/DKitchen/new_655/webster_language.htm (accessed September 13, 2012)
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