But today let's look at how US spelling came to be different from English spelling. The big mover and shaker was Noah Webster. In "An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation" (phew - NOT a snappy title Mr Webster!) written in 1789, he says
It has been observed by all writers, on the English language, that the orthography or spelling of words is very irregular ... The question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniencies in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE?
Mr Webster thought reform was definitely needed. And he proposed the following changes:
1. "The omission of all superfluous or silent letters." So he wanted bread to be bred, friend to be frend and give to be giv.
2. "A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate." This would give us *neer for near, *laf for laugh, *blud for blood, *wimmin for women and *korus for chorus.
3. "... ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh". So you would do your washing in a *masheen and a *shef would work in a restaurant. Other French spellings would also go, leaving us with *toor (tour) and *obleek (oblique).
4. "A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character." So here he proposed putting a little line across th to distinguish the voiced and unvoiced sounds. And he suggested using some dots over vowel letters to differentiate them.
Some of these suggestions were adopted at least in part but many of them the public just refused to use.
- our got changed to or, so colour became color, but it never got as far as *culor.
- re at the end of a word became er, so the British theatre became the US theater but for some reason not always (American National Theatre) and acre didn't become acer (because it would change the pronunciation).
- Cheque got shortened to check, but unique didn't ever make it to *uneek (or *yooneek).
And another issue for me is that English orthography seems to purposely use different spellings to distinguish between most homophones. So check and cheque sound the same but are spelt differently to show they have different meanings. Also tire (to get tired) and tyre (black rubber on the wheel) deliberately, I think, have different spellings. In simplifying these for US English, that difference is lost.
So what about spelling reform generally - does it work? My feeling is that it's something that comes naturally to a language and it's a difficult thing to force on the native speakers of that language. It wouldn't surprise me if *alot replaced a lot, not because anyone in authority has said it should but it is the way many native speakers write it. And maybe u will become the new spelling of you. Capital letters may die out (or is it just a phase we're going through?) and the days of the apostrophe seem numbered (except that it appears where it shouldn't!).
I'd love to hear your opinions:
- Is US English easier to spell than British English?
- Tell us about other varieties of English (Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian, Carribean, etc, etc)
- Can spelling reform work?
- Has it worked in other languages that you know?
- What other English spellings do you think might change?
For a full list of the differences between US and UK English (and some other varieties):
A bit more user-friendly if you just want to check something quickly:
http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/egw/jones/differences.htm (but beware of *banque)
And if you want to read more from Noah Webster (where the info above came from):