United by uncommon lexicography

A few centuries ago, English spelling was a far looser and more inconsistent affair than it is today. Dictionaries were few, their contents patchy. Shakespeare’s name, even by his own hand, serves to illustrate the degree of variation. Gradually, a good deal of standardisation came about, particularly in the written language, but different standards apply in different places, and usage remains much colo(u)red by variety.

A lot of the discussion over this variety concerns the differences between AmE and BrE spellings (many of which owe to the influence of Noah Webster). Ireland uses BrE spelling, for the most part, as do Australia and New Zealand (Burchfield’s home country), while Canada mixes American and British conventions. Wikipedia has a long, heavily footnoted page on transatlantic spelling differences; for analysis of these and more general differences, I recommend Lynne Murphy’s separated by a common language blog, named after G. B. Shaw’s famous quip.

Are AmE and BrE spelling differences reversible? More qualified minds than mine have entertained the idea of bringing the spelling systems closer together. It’s a very human urge to want to tidy the messy edges of a language. We want to fix, if only in part, an imperfect system. Efficiency is one of the forces behind linguistic change, whether it is consciously directed at a text before us or emerges spontaneously and gradually over time.

Lexicographer Robert Burchfield was no stranger to linguistic change: his revised third edition of Fowler’s iconic usage dictionary was criticised for its largely descriptive approach; and as editor of the Supplement to the OED, he received death threats over some of his decisions. So he was more aware than most people of the passions, for better and worse, that words can inspire.

Tucked away at the back of his book The English Language (1985) is a curious endnote about spelling reform that’s worth reproducing in full:

It would not be a difficult exercise for British people to become accustomed to final -or in all the relevant words (honour/honor, labour/labor, etc.), or for Americans to become used to –our. Similarly it should be possible to come to an agreement about the spelling of such words as marvellous/marvelous, travelling/traveling, and kidnapped/kidnaped (the British forms given first in each case). More difficult (it seems to me) would be the resolution of oe/e in oesophagus/esophagus, etc., ae/e in aesthetic/esthetic, etc., and ph/f in sulphur/sulfur, etc. But a ‘trade-off’, if it could be achieved, in such relatively minor areas of spelling would help to bring the written forms of British and American English much closer together. In 1968 Dr Philip Gove (editor of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary)* and I lightheartedly discussed the possibility of making an approach along these lines to our respective governments but it came to nothing in the end.

Much as I admire Burchfield’s optimism, I think it’s very unlikely that even the more modest shifts could ever be engineered. If changes along the lines Burchfield describes were to be introduced systematically, there might be uproar – or, at any rate, furious brow-furrowing, ferocious levels of grumbling, and further inconsistencies.

Not only do people become accustomed and attached to words and particular spellings and usages, but they positively fetishize (and fetishise) them – often to the extent of finding legitimate variants objectionable.

But it’s tantalising to imagine the discussions Burchfield and Gove had about this. How light-hearted were they? What sort of approach to their governments was envisaged? Were any records kept of possible “trade-offs” – lists made on café napkins, degrees of difficulty calculated, that sort of thing? My curiosity about this is unlikely to be satisfied.


* A fiercely contentious reference book which I wrote about here.

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18 Responses to United by uncommon lexicography

  1. cica says:

    do Americans really spell it ‘kidnaped’? I am quite accustomed to US spelling, and even prefer it for a few words, but that just looks wrong to me. I’d be inclined to pronounce it /kɪdneʲpt/. (or kidnayped, if you don’t read IPA)

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    I have never seen “kidnaped” [ˈkɪdneɪpt]. AmE is “kidnapped.”

    Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with spelling variation between countries. I think it keeps life interesting (and no, I’m not being sarcastic).

    As an American child, I never had any trouble with English spelling forms, once they were explained to me. I wish American publishers would give American readers more credit, and stop Americanizing English books. I enjoyed the Alice and Mary Poppins books, and Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows exactly as written. If more children were given the chance to learn about linguistic differences from a young age, we’d all be better at communicating. As it is, I have to import the Harry Potter books from overseas to read what Rowling actually wrote; and I do the same with more adult fare when it comes to any writer I like.

  3. Thomas says:

    I’m American, but I agree with cica, kidnaped looks wrong (even my computer’s spellcheck doesn’t like it.) Aesthetics looks correct, but I would spell esthetician without the leading ‘a’. The spelling of diarrhoea I encountered several months ago, in forms completed by medical staff working on a research study in Africa. And I wouldn’t mind retaining Aluminium, just because it’s fun to say.

  4. Stuart says:

    Ireland, Australia and Canada all get mentioned, but Burchfield’s home country doesn’t? Perhaps that’s karma for the way he is unsung and (comparatively) unhonoured here :)

  5. Stan says:

    cica: It’s not wrong, but it is a strange example for Burchfield to have used. This ngram shows how its currency has been dwindling compared to -pp- forms.

    Amy: I agree. Variation is the spice of linguistic life. I didn’t realise the Americanization of English books was so prevalent, and like you I think it ultimately interferes with communication more than it facilitates it.

    Thomas: It looks odd to me, but not exactly wrong. As cica says, though, it invites mispronunciation. The history of aluminum vs. aluminium is knotty and interesting, as the two links here demonstrate.

    Stuart: A regrettable oversight. I’m grateful to you for pointing it out, and I’ve updated the post accordingly. I intended to mention NZ, but couldn’t immediately see how to do so (it was late and I was exhausted), so I’m glad you brought it up.

  6. Aidan says:

    When I lived in Ireland certain American spelling conventions like -ize instead of -ise were accepted. The -or instead of -our spelling was never allowed though.
    In my company US English is the corporate language so I generally let the spell checker ‘correct’British spellings. Sometimes I am not even sure if I used to spell words a different way or not e.g. maneuver or manoeuvre?
    Pronunciation and spelling seem to be more and more distant cousins. Whereas I pronounce Saturday as spelt I heard a (British) singer from Blue prounce it as Sa-u-day in the lead up to the Eurovision.

  7. Cynthia Shearer says:

    Some of these spellings are the print equivalent of an accent. They do not impede understanding. Why not treasure these differences rather than seek to obliterate regional identity?

  8. peacay says:

    Diversity for all! Inclusiveness will improve the accuracy rate for spelling at the very least.

  9. Ben T-S says:

    Regarding CanE: Canadian English also does the same with lexically-specific pronunciations: the “a” in “drama” hovers in between the a in “cat” and “father;” the “o” in “process” between the “o” in “code” and and “o” in “lot;” not to mention the use of “zed” as opposed to America “zee” (that doesn’t fall under the category of “pronunciation,” but still). Although in terms of both pronunciation and and spelling, I get the sense we Americans are starting to colonize!

  10. Hmm how would we standarise/ize AmE and BrE.

    Zed and zee could be merged to provide a compromise pronunciation, to wit Zeed

    To bring IrE into line the pronunciation of A could become Arrrrrgh

    color/color, labour/laour can be the subject of another compromise/ize becoming labur and colur

    the ise/ize problem can be overcome by -isze and changing the pronuncuation to that used by Hungarians

    I think we have a way through the impasse!

  11. Stan says:

    Aidan: Your observations of usage in Ireland tally with my own. It’s worth saying here that -ize is almost as common as -ise in BrE (2:3, according to David Crystal). Given that we seem to be writing more than ever (texting and communicating online), it’ll be interesting to see how pronunciation and spelling are affected over the next few decades.

    Cynthia: I heartily agree. In fact, I concluded a recent post with a similar point: Dialectal differences should be savoured, not savaged.

    peacay: I’ll have whatever you’re having yourself!

    Ben: Very interesting. I’ll have to pay more attention to the accent when next I get a chance.

    Jams: Ha ha. Your solutions are inspired. I’m making you trickster king of our forever imaginary international language academy.

  12. Stuart says:

    Stan, no criticism was intended, I assure you. It’s just that NZ does not celebrate its achievers much if they achieve outside of sports, and I always like to try to make up for that oversight. As a teen I used to think it was HUGE and exciting that the guy “running” the OED was a Kiwi, and never understood why so few of my fellows thought similarly. :)

  13. Stan says:

    Understood, Stuart. :-) Sports are huge in Ireland too; when I was growing up, sporting stars were the most obvious and prevalent folk heroes.

    You might enjoy this recent appreciation of Robert Burchfield: Original Gangster.

  14. Joe McVeigh says:

    Hey, Stan, thanks for the link love. Although I have a pretty good knowledge of the OED and some of its editors, I had no idea Burchfield received death threats for his edits. Ridiculous. Also, straight gangster. I just had to put on some Snoop and Tupac and write about it.

    Also, a general thanks for your site, Stan. I always find your posts very interesting.

    @cica: Nice gravatar. I’m looking at Pikku Myy on my coffee cup right now. Thanks to a Finnish wife and a two-year-old, I’m more versed in Moomins than I am in OED editors. But maybe that’s for the best…

  15. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Joe, and thanks yourself for the link and the kinds words. Your post made me laugh, and the twist you put on the story was quite apt. The death threats Burchfield received, as you know, were issued on account of the OED’s inclusion or treatment of taboo words, such as ethnic slurs. In a Twitter chat that followed this post, I said that to avoid taboo words (in a dictionary) for reasons of taste, nerve or commerce is only to add to the power of the taboo.

  16. Joe McVeigh says:

    Stan, I agree with you on the taboo words. As George Carlin said, “There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And woooords.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of your language in certain circumstances. But being mindful of your language really just means being mindful of your thoughts and intentions, which is why people can use bad words and ethnic slurs in a positive way (usually to express a communal feeling) and be understood by listeners. It’s like, “I can make fun of my family/country/ethnicity/etc., but you can’t because you’re not a part of it or don’t love it like I do.” But that’s opening up a-whole-nother can of worms…

  17. Stan says:

    More like a barrel of worms, Joe, or a can of words! I wrote briefly about taboo words, and made a similar point to you about being careful in certain circumstances, in this post about the absurdity wrought by automated profanity filters. (Carlin, inevitably, appears.)

  18. […] that shit? He knew – homeboy just didn’t care. He published that shit anywayz. It was his job to tell the world about the English language, not their job to tell him about it. Robert Burchfield took the English […]

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