Spelling: American v. British

I was thinking about differences in spelling certain words in American English, versus British English.

Many words that Americans spell ending in -er are spelled ending in -re in British English; for example: center/centre or liter/litre. Another class of these differences is in words ending in -or in American English that are spelled -our in British English, such as valor/valour or color/colour.

Are the British spellings of these words from the French equivalents? Do we know why Americans replaced one spelling with another? Why did this change not also affect Canada?

Noah Webster, yes, the one behind Webster’s Dictionary, was a proponent of spelling reform for American English. He was immensely influential and his spellers and grammars as well as his dictionaries sold in huge numbers.

Canada did not rebel against Britain. It was a much smaller and less independent country with firm British ties.

I’d like to see an authoritative answer to this question. “Colour” isn’t French, but it’s closer to French than “color” is. And it seems to me that, in many cases where British and American English differ, the British spelling is closer to French, perhaps reflecting England’s geographical and cultural closeness to France?

Or the fact that English is the son of a Norman lord and a Saxon wench… it’s a matter of direct descent.

Spelling didn’t get fixed (as in “there’s a right way and a wrong way to spell any particular word”) until dictionaries started getting printed in the early 19th Century. And around the same time, there was a fad in America to simplify English spelling. So “Though” became “tho” and “night” became “nite”, but those extreme spelling simplifications didn’t stick. But other simplifications, like “colour” becoming “color”, did.

Samuel Johnson published the first English dictionary in 1755. Did it take fifty years for others to write them?

But Samuel Johnson was British, and had nothing to do with American dictionaries.

In 1755 Americans were British.

The answer remains Noah Webster, as Exapno Mapcase pointed out immediately.

Good point. Out of the last 241 years, Samuel Johnson had influence over American spelling for 1 year. :slight_smile:

I don’t believe that spelling was changed along with the government.

I’ve read two seemingly plausible arguments, both originating in the days of Noah Webster and particularly with Webster himself.

One, mentioned already, was the drive to both standardize and simplify spelling. Before that, people tended to spell words however they cared to, with the same words spelled in many different ways. (See, for example, how many ways the name Shakespeare has been spelled. Shakespeare himself spelled it umpteen ways, “Shakespeare” not among them. This wiki page also mentions the many spellings of Walter Raleigh and Thomas Dekker.) The drive was to standardize spellings; simplify them; and make similar classes of words have similar spellings. Exapno Mapcase gives many examples above, some of which grew legs and some not.

(Another change from British to American spelling was the change of the suffix -ise to -ize. Britons saw the Colonists becoming Americanised, but the Colonists saw themselves becoming Americanized.)

According to the other argument I’ve heard, there was a very conscious and deliberate effort among newly-independent American society to develop a new and distinct American culture, apart from British culture, and that changing a lot of spellings was part of this effort. By itself, that seems too petty, but in conjunction with the drive to simplify and standardize, it may have been a real consideration.

Even if it did, that would be 21 years, not 1.

“Doughnut” or “donut”?

The most likely explanation is that there was an effort to differentiate the United States from the United Kingdom, and language was part of that effort. Language change in print typically occurs as a result of large and influential publishers printing and disseminating altered spellings, buzz words, and even subtle grammar modifications. Over time, the changes stick.

And bear in mind that back then, it’s not like someone came out with a new dictionary and it immediately appeared on everyone’s Kindle, and English usage was immediately changed. Languages evolve over time, with or without a new dictionary. There’s a difference between Mr. Webster’s guidelines and a governmental decree. Even today, with our instantaneous communication, the language is all over the place.

“Nite”, “thru”, and some others kinda half-stuck. They’re used as abbreviations that (unlike most abbreviations) happen to sound exactly like the original word.

It’s Commonwealth English, not “British”. Yes there is a difference, and yes it’s important to tens of millions of English speakers who are neither Brits or Yanks.

Well, no, most of the Commonwealth countries have their own variants of English - sometimes more than one variant. And there are still other variants of English from countries which are not Commonwealth countries. These variants tend mostly to be closer to British English than to American English but they are nevertheless distinct from both.

It’s worth noting that the Latin of words like colour didn’t have a U either, so the American spelling is, in fact, closer to the original. That’s not the reason, but let’s not pretend the U-colour is some sort of purer form of the word.