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.


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.

There was Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet, and George Bernard Shaw's indictment of English inconsistencies--though he never did suggest that fish be spelled as ghoti for all the sense of spelling rules, as good a story as it would make had he done so, he did argue that "if we do not spell words as they are pronounced, our readers will pronounce words as they are spelt, so that in the end we shall have a change in the English spoken language which is in no way desirable." There were Theodore Roosevelt's spelling reforms and the creation of the Simplified Spelling Board and American Phonetic Alphabet. Time and time again, various authorities have done the exact opposite of what Pullman suggests: They've tried to assert their own vision of the language instead of conforming to prevailing norms. And they've done so with little authority behind them save that of their own making.

Take the Chicago Tribune from, say, April 1934, and you'll be agast to find that the staf have taken a group of burocrats up on its suggestions for language reform, and the new spellings--or should it be spelings?--follow no rime or reason. Over the course of several months, the paper introduced some 80 respelled words, among them such gems as iland, jaz, bazar, autograf, and sofomore into its daily usage. Though the reaction was less than excited--"Why, with all its righteousness and force has not the Tribune been more successful in effecting reforms?" a commentator asked, going on to answer his own question: "The truth is that all newspapers are a shade futile"--the effort persisted through the mid-1970s. The Tribune wasn't letting go without a fight (though when it finally gave up the ghost, the managing editor referred to those ill-fated words not as essential reforms but as "trick spellings.")

Futile, the commentator had called the newspapers. And therein lies the problem. There has been no lack of reform attempts. What has been lacking is an authority that is, well, authoritative enough for anything to stick. As The Economist argued back in 2008, one of the reasons people like Franklin and Shaw--and even Roosevelt or Webster--failed to garner the necessary support for lasting change is that, "English has never, unlike Spanish, Italian and French, had a central regulatory authority capable of overseeing standardisation." The result: an inconsistent landscape that has no real logic to tie it together.

And so it is that today, we find discrepancies not only between the greys and grays of the world, safely ensconced on their respective sides of the ocean, but between some of the leading bastions of the English language on the same side of the pond. If I'm focused on a writing assignment for The New York Times, I would do well to remember to become focussed if I'm to go over to the New Yorker. And forget any attempts to cooperate between the two. I'd be stuck in endless coöperation--or co-operation, should I try my hand at a piece for The Guardian--limbo before I could so much as look up the meaning of dieresis. (In case you're wondering, those tricky double dots are meant to indicate that the second vowel forms a new syllable, so that a foreigner, for instance, wouldn't read the "reel" in reelect the same way as the reel one uses for fishing. Rumor has it, the symbol was once on the verge of extinction in one of its last bastions, the New Yorker.)

And the list goes on. Analog or analogue? In the United States, either one goes--even my persnickety spell checker, which has been on a rampage throughout this piece, has found both variations perfectly acceptable, even where it persistently changes all offending s's to z's, ou's to o's. Ditto catalog and catalogue, dialog and dialogue--and that's not to mention the persistent confusion over something like cord and chord, where meanings change as you travel from one country to the other.

If I'm a graduate student, to whom am I reporting--my adviser or my advisor? If I smelt iron, am I fusing together ores--or did I just smell something metallic in the air? And is that a license I see, or a licence? (There, too, there is an actual difference: In British English, the former is a verb only, while the latter is the noun. In the U.S., licence is considered a spelling error.) Each publication must make its own decision--but that decision need not apply to the next publication over.

And so, confusion reigns supreme.

It's easy to throw your hands up in despair at the whole mess. As Lionel Trilling once quipped, "I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language." But can you blame me for trying to get at least some semblance of consistency? I'd be happy to give up the ou's and the double letters, exchange z's for s's, a's for e's, dialogues for dialogs, or any which way you'll have it. Just pick one and stick with it--at the very least, within the same country.

Enough is enough. English spellings of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your confusion.