American Spelling

Law of the universe. Some things are so broke that they cannot be fixed from here - you have to start somewhere you can't get to from here.

English spelling is so broken it cannot be fixed - if you did fix it, it wouldn't be English.

If you want to fix English, start with Spanish, Swahili, or Dolphin - your chances will be higher. How do I know this? The revision count is lower!

Law of the universe. Some people, countries, cultures are always doomed to suffer from the delusion of grandeur that they can fix something this broke. In this case, America thinks it can fix repair or improve English spelling. You can't. All you do is add another layer of exceptions - being your exceptions, they look shiny, but they're not. Why is this on the wiki? What does it have to do with programming? Lots. Have a peek in your favourite legacy system.

Start infinite list of favourite English anachronistic self-contradictory usages/features here. The above is humour (US humor). As for actual spelling differences, there are a few others, such as defence (US defense), analogue (US analog), doughnut (US donut), centre (US center), practise (US practice), oesophagus (US esophagus), aluminium (US aluminum), traveller (US traveler), and related words. The bigger problem is American misspellings.

The use of US spellings upsets some people so much that I have seen a program start:

 #define SetPenColour SetPenColor
 #define GetPenColour GetPenColor
 #define GetNumberOfColours GetNumberOfColors
etc. ...

Of course, the code itself had been modified by many people, and both usages could be seen in the source.

If you're going to bother changing the spelling of colour, why stop at color? Why not go the whole hog and write culler? - Beats me. No, American spelling is not about making things more logical. It's like dogs pissing on lampposts. It's about the Americans claiming the language for themselves and marking it as something different from the one used by those damned limeys. -- StephenHutchinson

Or, more reasonably, British and American usages started to diverge before the spelling had been completely standardized, so they eventually ended up with divergent standards. Please let's not have another boring transatlantic flamewar over this.

Actually, a lot of it was intentional; but both `sides' were at fault. Definitely agree that flames here are useless.

I recall German adopting some spelling reforms recently without much fuss. Our need is of course much greater than theirs, but there is no language authority, so I guess it isn't going to happen. On balance, I would say (as a Brit) that American spellings are on balance slightly less irrational than International English spellings, but I would have problems with American use of prepositions.

"Without fuss"? The Germans I know tell me that the top-down approaches to simplifying the German written form have mostly failed because they're too confusing to remember, and simply get discarded. See

And why is it bad if a language is irrational? Language is for people to use, after all, and people are hardly rational creatures.

Precisely the point - human beings certainly don't need any more help being irrational. -- MikeSmith


I submit that, in addition to the economic ones, one reason that English is so widespread is that it incorporates the rules of other languages into itself. When a German or Spanish or Japanese word is borrowed for English, its conjugations or declensions are all borrowed with it. Even the pronunciation is often unchanged. Other languages, such as French, usually modify a word's spelling to follow their own conventions. This makes English more complex than it would be otherwise, but it is obviously worth it to the speakers who continue to use it this way. Can somebody give examples for this? The plural of "poltergeist" and "kindergarten" in German are "poltergeister" and "kindergärten". Are those the right words in English too? No. I can't get closer than opus/opera.

In German, the spelling and declensions often are kept in the beginning too. Over the years, they tend to be adopted to the German spellings: "Phantasie" became "Fantasie"; "Kommata" is still in wide use, but many say "Kommas" instead and it actually was introduced into the "Duden"-dictionary many years ago. The trend to adopt foreign words to the German language was promoted by the GermanSpellingReform?, which seems to be widely accepted in Austria and Switzerland, but is more controversial in Germany itself.

I (a German) have quite an oddity for you. We borrowed e.g. "to download", but because we recognize "down" as a prefix, we will mangle it to the extreme for past tense: 'I have downloaded it' becomes 'Ich habe es downgeloadet'. This is actually used very often. After having uttered it, I always think that this intermixing of German and English syllables sounds strange.

Actual FACT and HISTORY follow (as opposed to idle speculation above): The spelling differences in the US are primarily because of Noah Webster. He attempted to create an American English to help differentiate the new nation that was formed. He made the American English more phonetic and made an attempt to bring the language closer to its Anglo-Saxon roots. He made some allowances for some cases where the phonetic version was simply ugly (queen vs cween).

"Reasoning that many spelling conventions were artificial and needlessly confusing, he urged altering many words: musick to music, centre to center, and plough to plow, for example. (Other attempts at reform met with less acceptance, however, such as his support for modifying tongue to tung and women to wimmen — the latter of which he argued was "the old and true spelling and the one that most accurately indicated its pronunciation." (

There was movement on the British side as well. A number of popular papers in the UK embraced and exaggerated non-US spellings; the preponderance of "ize" vs "ise" endings originated here. I'll try and dig up a cite if/when I have a chance.

A variety of quotes to help understand what on Earth happened to English spelling in general (British spelling is, overall, just as crazy as American spelling).

First, the sound bites, followed by explanatory text about the history.
"The fact remains that our spelling is more than irrational . it is inhuman, and forms the bane not merely of foreigners, but of our own younger generations, compelled to devote interminable hours to learning a system which is the soul and essence of anarchy." (Dr. Mario Pei, The Story of the English Language, 1967, page 338).

"The English language has the worst system of spelling of any major language." (Robert C. Pinckert, Pinckert's Practical Grammar, 1986, page 22).

"One study worked out that in English there are 13.7 spellings per sound." (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 1987, page 213).

"there are no fewer than thirteen spellings for 'sh'", (McCrum?, Cran & MacNeil?, The Story of English, 1986, page 46).

"English Students of German can spell six times better in German than they can in English". (Christopher Upward, Former Senior Lecturer, Department of Languages and European Studies, Aston University, Journal of Research in Reading, 1992).

"A 2-year study at Stanford University determined that over 300 rules would be required to spell correctly, by rule, half of our 17,000 most frequently used words." (Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS), Issue 32-03/1, page i, 2003. The study is Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, 1966).

"The rules taught in phonics methods of teaching number about 70 to 100...; text-to-speech computer programs show that the rules to decipher English number over 500. Hence, problems." (Dr. Valerie Yule, Ph.D., Australian psychologist, JSSS, Issue 33-03/1, page 15, 2003).

"It would take more than 650 rules to spell 95+% of the 20,000 most frequently used words. This is staggeringly more than is required with other countries' more phonemic [(phonetic)] spelling systems." (Better Education thru Simplified Spelling (BEtSS) 1985-86 Annual Report, page 4).

"While the old accusation that there were no fixed spelling conventions in Middle English betrays a lack of understanding of extreme dialectal variation, conventions were largely scribal productions and could be highly localized, and often demonstrate some startling scribal takes on the relationship between certain configurations of letterforms and the spoken words they represent. (In Norfolk and Suffolk, for example, the initial 'sh-' sound of words like 'shall' is often represented as an 'x', resulting in 'xal', 'xould', etc.)"

"[The continuing evolution of spoken English influenced spelling...] In the later fourteenth century, Chancery Standard (or London English) - itself a phenomenon produced by the increase of bureaucracy in London, and a concomitant increase in London literary production - introduced a greater deal of conformity in English spelling."

"Generally, all letters in Middle English words are pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English come from pronunciation shifts but continued spelling conventions.) Therefore 'knight' is pronounced 'k-n-i-g-h-t' (with 'gh' as the 'ch' in German 'nacht' or Scots 'loch'), not 'nite'"

"[also] the scribe of a work and the author of a work may not share the same dialect. In such cases, there are sometimes dialectal mixtures preserved, and it can be difficult at times to separate the dialect of the original text and that introduced by the scribe's re-writing of the text whilst employing his own (local) spellings. Even in the case of holograph manuscripts (texts copied by the author) such as the Ormulum, there are complexities in the relationship between orthography (how words are written) and phonology (how they might have sounded): Ormm, the author of the Ormulum, changed his orthographical system midway through the writing of his text, leaving us with essentially two sets of 'acceptable' spellings for many words, despite his privileging of the latter system. Later attempts at orthography ranged from the comic . Chaucer's complaint against his scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, in 'To Adam Scriveyn' . to the serious and long-lasting: the attempt to avoid documentary confusion in record-keeping by standardizing Chancery English, developing a form which, with the advent of printing, provided the basis from which the literary cultures of early modern English were to emerge."

Prior to the advent of dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson's in 1755, there was no single source in which to check on official spellings.

Printing was pioneered by Johann Gutenberg in the 1440s, and introduced to England in the 1470s by William Caxton. The first book published in England was "History of Troy" in 1474 by Caxton, who made arbitrary and inconsistent spelling decisions. Quoting from : "When William Caxton couldn't find English people to man his printing press in 1476, he hired Dutch printers who brought with them the 'gh' spelling for 'g', leading to 'ghost' rather than good old English 'gost'. Many of the diverse spelling of the 16th century are allegedly due to printers' needs to make words fit a line of print: variations in length came in very handy, say between 'truly', 'truely', 'treulie' and 'trewlie'."

"The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time, and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer, and often faced dilemmas of how much to standardize the language in the books he printed. (He actually wrote about this subject in at least one of his books.) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems. However Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492, was a more accomplished stylist; he also favoured Chancery Standard, the language of London government. Pynson therefore helped to nudge the printed language towards standardization."

See also "Regional Varieties of Middle English"

As to place names and people's names: Ordnance Survey Maps recorded geographical features, and the spellings used tended to become the recognized form. Civil Registration starting in 1837 began a fairly universal recording of people's names; as with the more ad hoc church records and domesday records, this tended to have the effect of preserving random spellings of names as the official form.

See also YanquiSpelling, PurityOfEnglish


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