A Call for Spelling Standardization (or Is That Standardisation?)

British English, American English, Noah Webster English, or New Yorker English? Let's just pick one and stick with it.

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Can we all agree that the color is grey, not gray? Or gray. That, too, would be totally fine. Each variation has a weighty pedigree, and it wasn't until the 19th century that the current pattern--what's gray in the United States is grey across the sea--emerged. As late as 1893, The Times of London had a preference for grayness, as did the great Samuel Johnson (his 1755 opus, A Dictionary of the English Language, was taken as the definitive compendium of the English language until the arrival of the Oxford version--and let's remember that Dr. Johnson was British). The esteemed London printing houses of William Clowes and Sons and Eyre & Spottiswoode (the King's Printer), on the other hand, stood by a greyer usage. But even then, opinions on either side of the argument were too deeply entrenched for change--so much so that people went as far as to argue that the two words had different meanings altogether: Grey "a more delicate or a lighter tint than gray," and gray the "'warmer' colour." The last century has done little to quell the disagreement; if anything, each side of the ocean now has its very own linguistic army.

But isn't it time to lay down the sword? Or is English to remain a language whose spelling varies from country to country, publication to publication--and even within the same publication if you happen to catch it at different times or different editorial reigns? Gray or grey is the least of the problem. Over the last 200 or so years, strange discrepancies have cropped up wherever you look.

Many now-common differences can be traced to Noah Webster's proposed reforms in the late 1700s and early 1800s, after America had gained its independence from Britain. Why did the language need to be reformed, one might (reasonably enough) ask? Not, it seems, because it was suffering from any particular malady, but because it would be a way to assert American independence, not just of land but of mind and spirit. "The alteration, however small," wrote Webster in his 1789 "Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation"--his take on the topic over a decade before his first eponymous dictionary, with its mellower rhetoric, was released--"would encourage the publication of books in our own country. It would render it, in some measure, necessary that all books should be printed in America. The English would never copy our orthography for their own use." So was the goal of the changes to improve efficiency (a point he would later argue)--or to spite the English?

Webster went on to remark that "a national language is a band of national union" and that "every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national." In his estimation, what was holding Americans back was "an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners." To combat this unfortunate state of affairs, spelling would be his weapon of choice. And yes, he hoped his proposal would make spelling more regular. But that, it seems from the surrounding arguments, was a secondary consideration to asserting an American national identity.

Whatever the motivation, others were not so quick to agree that English was in any need of change, dire or not. Both linguists and academics opposed the reforms, arguing that an arbitrary alteration of spelling would destroy precious etymology and introduce unnecessary artificiality into the language's linguistic development. (How ironic, then, that these very same changes, or at least those that survived, are now supported with equal vehemence.) And so, the result was an incomplete, and often inconsistent, adoption of select measures--measures that today mark what we now consider standard differences between British and American spelling: The change of -our into -or (colour versus color, away from the French-derived Middle English spelling and more in line with pronunciation), of -re to -er (centre versus center--likewise a move away from French derivation), -ise to -ize (realise versus realize), -yse to -yze (analyse versus analyze), -ogue to -og (dialogue versus dialog), -ence to -ense (defence versus defense), and so on.

But if that were the whole story, there wouldn't be much to it. It's easy enough to learn one spelling in one country, one in another, and be done with it. As linguist Geoff Pullum observes, he little minds switching from one standard to the other depending on the target audience. "Spelling," he says, "is not an area in which your ordinary human freedoms should be allowed free rein; there are no human rights appeals against the facts of spelling." He's happy enough to be grey in one country and gray in the other; that's their prerogative, not his.

Fair enough. And if only more people would subscribe to the same doctrine, all would be (relatively) well. But alas, that is not the tone that has prevailed in the popular discourse. Instead, Webster's nationalistic swagger was just the first in a series of reform movements to bully the English language into a semblance of order--whatever the reformer in question considered the order to be.

Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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