United by uncommon lexicography

May 17, 2011

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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The -tide of reform

May 2, 2011

Sometimes it behoves people to adopt and accelerate changes in the common vocabulary of their language for political or cultural reasons. Mankind, once the norm, is now widely and rightly considered an inadequate term for humankind. Ditto chairman for chairperson, fireman for firefighter, and similar sexist and androcentrist terms.

In other cases, though, such attempts to ‘fix’ a language are misguided to the point of absurdity. I think we’re better off without huperson, woperson, personslaughter and personhole covers.

Of course, it’s not always gender that’s at issue. Here’s an account of one mercifully short-lived attempt at linguistic reform in the name of religion:

In the nineteenth century, British politician Thomas Massey railed against Catholicisms in the English language and proposed to the House of Commons that Christmas should be renamed ‘Christ-tide’ to avoid reference to the Catholic mass. When Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stood up, however, to ask Thomas Massey whether he was then also prepared to change his own name to ‘Tom-tide Tidey’, the matter was closed.

From A History of Language, by Steven Roger Fischer.

Previously: Aborting the sexist pronoun.