Stranger in a Strange Land: Part Five


It seems I am to lose yet another of life’s little pleasures, after being scolded by the government (who are determined to suck ALL the fun out of life)  for eating butter, salt, ice-cream, white bread and Mars bars dipped in batter and fried, (not all at the same time), now it seems I am to lose the pleasure of explaining to Americans that they are spelling everything wrong. For example;

British English vs American English

colour vs color
favourite vs favorite
memorise vs memorize
defence vs defense
centre vs center
plough vs plow
encyclopaedia vs encyclopedia

(My spell checker is going absolute nuts at that list!)

These are just some of the more common differences and if I had a dollar, I mean a pound, for every time I typed in Wikipaedia (as just about everyone on this side of the pond would do automatically) rather than Wikipedia I’d be a rich man..

However, It seems I owe my friends across the pond an apology (or ten), after taking every opportunity to lecture them about their incorrect spelling of colour and neighbour ad nausaeum,  I’ve recently discovered that Americans may have more claim to the correct spelling of English than I give them credit for.

Apparently..  (always be wary of any sentence that starts with the word ‘apparently’), apparently, American English has remained relatively unchanged since the pilgrim fathers landed there and this is part of the reason why it still retains old 18th Century spellings such as color, neighbor, etc  and it’s somewhat cheeky of me to lecture Americans on spelling as that’s how we spelt everything in 1620, plus being a man I can’t spell to save my life (technically English is not my native tongue but Irish is so at least I have an excuse).

Moaning about spelling comes down to a combination of snobbery and aesthetics, on this side of the pond there is a wee bit of a superiority complex when it comes to the mother tongue, after all, this is the land of Shakespeare and Dickens and we, I mean they, like to think they know better.

But you see, most of the settlers at the colony of Jamestown which was established in 1607 (i.e. thirteen years before the Pilgrim Fathers), mainly came from the home counties, and a number of them were considered aristocrats so I imagine American English before the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers was closer to London speech but the Pilgrim Fathers (and their wives and children but whoever mentions them???) arrived in 1620. Most originated in the East Midlands, and most spent several years in Holland before departing to the New World. One reason for leaving Holland is that their offspring were becoming “Dutchified”. So their speech would have been East Midland with some Dutch influence thrown in, and then of course quite a lot of Dutch came over after the first year… and slaves too..

Thanks to American hegemonemony, (thank you Hollywood) America has pretty much kept the English language relevant globally, from helping stop the British having to learn German at the end of a gun barrel to the simultaneous, simplification, preservation and evolution of the language itself, Americans can be credited with keeping the language going. Americans are like the old Arabs who kept the Greek knowledge preserved, except the Americans improved and built on this knowledge significantly but I do wonder why, after the revolution, Americans didn’t just change the name of the language and have done with it.

Thanks to a gentleman called Noah Webster it would appear that American spelling got a bit frozen in time. The name Webster means nothing over here, apart from the brewery of course, it’s the Oxford English Dictionary that every child has a battered copy of in their school satchel but Websters seems to be the gold standard across the pond. However, everything isn’t as clear cut as it first appears, a lot of American variant spelling is down to Noah Webster. Have a nosey at “Noah Webster, American Men of Letters“,   page 251;

“Slowly, edition by edition, Webster changed the spelling of words, making them “Americanized.” He chose s over c in words like defense, he changed the re to er in words like center, and he dropped one of the L’s in traveler. At first he kept the u in words like colour or favour but dropped it in later editions.”

He also changed “tongue” to “tung”—an innovation that never caught on.

So now there is some debate on both sides of the pond as to which spelling is correct English and the more we try to differentiate between US usage and UK usage the more the common enemy, the hated French will be comforted in their ridiculous “traduit de l’américain” at the front of translated novels… just to piss off the British..

What’s interesting is that 404 years after the founding of James Port in the new world, America still haven’t chosen an official language yet. At some point in the future I expect them to get off their collective butts and pick English (or if they wait long enough, Spanish) and then they can start telling the rest of us how it should be spelt.

Of course, betwixt thou and I, I think America already has a de facto official language, it’s called Incomprehensible Shouting

(Personally, I have always wondered why the Americans pronounce “herb” as “erb”).

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