Updated: Mar 31
Colour or color? Offense or Offence? They’re pronounced the same, but depending on where you were born, one is right and one is wrong. The British and American spelling systems are a clear demonstration of how history and culture have huge effects on how a language develops.
The British spelling system, it could be said, has looked to preserve tradition over practicality. English is, in essence, far from a “purebred” language. With words and grammatical structures taken from Romance, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, and a host of other languages, English is what could rather crudely be called a mongrel. These various linguistic influences can be seen in many different words, but are best observed in the British spelling system. Let’s look, for example, at the preservation of the “-u-” in words like flavour, behaviour, colour, and armour. The “-our” is in fact a carryover from the French language’s influence on English. Another example is the “ae” used in words like paediatrician and encyclopaedia. This construction has filtered down from a Greek diphthong, rendered in the Latin script as “ae”, and finally making its way into English spelling, often used, naturally, in words with Greek origins.
The American spelling system can be traced back to the American Revolution, where a number of intellectuals wanted to solidify the break with England by creating an independent spelling system. Reformers decided to do away with letters they considered to be unnecessary. The first and subsequent spelling reforms arose for basically two reasons. First, given that the United States was and still is a nation of immigrants, making English easier to learn and read became imperative. Given that English bears little resemblance to mainly Latin-based languages, like Spanish, its spelling, with its many unpronounced letters, is often confusing for those looking to learn the language. Therefore, reformers believed, by getting rid of “excess” letters, American spelling was made more palatable or easier to understand for those looking to learn the language. Secondly, with the rise of the revolution came a boom in printing. Revolutionary pamphlets and essays, books filled with new political ideologies were printed in the hundreds of thousands. Works using British spelling, with its extra letters, was, in terms of ink and paper, more expensive to produce than those that used the more streamlined American spelling system, which eventually took hold across the country.
Given this last, as well as America’s increasingly dominating influence over English-speaking culture, over the course of the last half century, a number of British publishers (primarily magazines) have chosen to adopt some aspects of American spelling in their publications: words containing “ae”, for example, have almost vanished from a number of publications. It seems, however, that publishers have tacitly agreed to keep the “u” in words like colour and flavour, though whether or not this decision will stand the test of time remains to be seen.