Sunday, October 25, 2009

American English - British English - International English

Many years ago Benjamin Franklin and then, after him, Noah Webster proposed changes to the spelling of the English Language. The intention was to 'rationalise' the spelling. The result, however, has been to create a second, equally irrational system. So we now have two authorities on the spelling of English, and neither of them rational at all. Instead of rationality we have mere conventionalism. Here are some examples of the differences:

Words ending in 'gue':

Analogue, Dialogue, Catalogue, Plague, League, Vague. In American English these words become: Analog, Dialog, Catalog, Plague, League, Vague. So some of them are changed and others are left alone, producing a system which is equally as irrational as the original.

Words and phrases using 'fence':

Offence, Defence, Garden Fence. In American English these become: Offense, Defense, Garden Fence. Here the change has been applied where it is to a syllable but not applied where it is to a word.

Words ending in 'our':

Honour, Valour, Colour, Flavour, Humour. In American English these become: Honor, Valor, Color, Flavor.

Words ending in 'ise':

Organise, Rationalise, Conceptualise, Wise, Clockwise, Nationalise, Privatise, Surprise, Disguise, Exercise, Televise, Advise, Merchandise. In American English these words become: Organize, Rationalize, Conceptualize, Wise, Clockwise, Nationalize, Privatize, Surprise, Disguise, Exercise, Televise, Advise, Merchandise. Some changed, some not bothered with.

Words with different syllables:

British 'Orientate' becomes 'Orient' in American but British 'Orientation' remains unchanged. Logically it would become 'Oriention' if the shortening were applied in a comprehensive way. I believe there are other examples of this occasional shortening but I don't have a full list of them.

When I was a boy I remember seeing American comic books where the spellings 'All nite' (for 'All night') and 'The man who walked thru walls' (for 'The man who walked through walls') were used. This was the sort of thing which made English teachers in Britain develop a measure of distinct anti-American feeling. In my secondary school, back in the mid-1960s, there was an English teacher who had grown up in the days of the British Raj in India. He was very old, probably past retirement age but still teaching English. He was the first ethnically Asian person I'd ever had contact with and his attitudes were of that very old fashioned sort found amongst loyal Indian British scholars in those days. He would not allow us to use the the word 'alright'. If he ever heard us using the word 'alright' he used to come down on us like a ton of bricks. 'I never want to hear you use that word 'alright' again,' he used to say, 'Never again! That's an Americanism!' It made him visibly angry.

My dad was Canadian and my mother was Irish. They both had International English, which is usually the same as British. The slight differences were in pronunciation. My dad would pronounce the British word 'aluminium' in the American way as 'al-oo--minum' and words like 'Worcester' and 'Gloucester' as they were spelled, rather than 'wooster' and 'gloss-ter' (which is what the English make of them).

When I was a little boy my primary school teachers lectured me against copying my old man's way of speaking and set me on a path of BBC pronunciations. However to this day I still say the words 'library' and 'strawberry' as they are spelled and not the 'li-bree' and 'strawbree' which is preferred by most of the English people.

For the future? What will the English language become? Probably one of many colloquial forms of Planet Earthspeak.

I think one of the great strengths of English is its ability to take in words and phrases from other languages and make them part of the elastic form of English itself. Perhaps the 'irrationality' of English is a necessary part of the flexibility and elasticity which makes such accommodations possible?

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