Can they spell your name in Karachi? American versus British spelling

Vivian Cook.

English Spelling system

'I say Tomahto and you say Tomayto', I spell 'Theatre' and you spell 'Theater', let's call the whole thing off. Is the gulf between American and British spelling really so wide? Does it matter?

It isn't that the differences are very striking. Take some groups of words in 'er/re', 'theatre', 'ise/ize' 'recognise', and 'ce/se' 'defence', add a few handfuls of individual words like 'carat/karat' and 'aluminium/aluminum', and that's it. Even an American authority, Donald Cummings, says 'The differences between American and, say, British English spelling are quite modest'.

In fact many of them come from the work of one man, Noah Webster, who laid them down in 1828 in his dictionary. It isn't that they really demonstrate any difference of pronunciation across the Atlantic: British people don't say the 's' sound in 'defence' differently from Americans. While there is indeed a difference in when 'r' is pronounced between standard British and American, that affects all the 'r's before consonants ('third') or silence ('there'), not just those in the ending 'er/re'.

Nor are the differences uniformly observed. A walk round London soon reveals a 'Center', around Madison, Wisconsin, a 'Theatre'. Often indeed the British use both spellings, the American one 'apologize/apologise' or 'meter/metre'. The differences are not exactly as clear-cut as which side of the road we drive on.

Of course people get very touchy about them. A paper I once submitted to an American journal was returned with the comment 'American spelling for an American journal'. People are self-conscious of these differences in a way they are oblivious of other aspects of language.

The differences between American and British style are not just the concerns of the USA and England. People in Canada are proud of their 'colour', officially sanctioned in 1890. Australians are more ambivalent, with 'color' outnumbering 'colour' but a 'Labor Party'.

Does it matter that people's spelling shows they come from New York or London? Can you imagine being told you couldn't speak at an American conference because you had a British accent? So why is it all right to censor British spelling? Spelling is one of those areas of language where attitude counts more than logic why should 'wot' denote a illiterate when it captures the sounds of 'what' much more efficiently?

Partly it's a question of patriotism. It was once said that 'it is part of the meaning of an American to sound like one'. And it's probably the same with writing; being American necessitates American spelling. Webster indeed justified 'color' from George Washington's Letters. Our accent proclaims where we come from; why shouldn't our spelling?

Indeed spelling is often used to put-down particular groups. The author of the following was doubtless trying to be faithful to his local audience in Wiltshire:

Down Vizes way zom years agoo,
When smuggl'n wur nuthen new,
An people wurdeb nar but shy
Of who they did their sperrits buy ...

But to us he probably succeeds in suggesting cider-swigging peasants sitting round the green.

The main asset that the English Language has got going for it is that people can read it anywhere regardless of how they pronounce it. It doesn't matter whether you're from Glasgow or from Bristol, from Los Angeles or Chicago, or even from Timbuktu or Tibet, you can still read and understand the same form of written English. The fewer such regional differences between British, American, Australian and so on, the better people will understand each other. Hopefully national flag-waving in spelling will not expand beyond these few examples and get in the way of the continuing success of English as an international language. As Humphrey Bogart once said, 'You're not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi.'