Chiefly British

It never fails.  I will be otherwise occupied when a question occurs to me and I’m not in a position to research an answer.  Then, just as silently as it rose to the surface of my waking thoughts, it sinks again—waiting.  Today’s topic was just such an anomaly, but now I have time on my hands.

I believe the prototype America—the one the American Revolutionary War would forge into a proper United States—required three main ingredients for it to succeed: new ideologies for government, literal and figurative fertile soil for them to thrive, and British citizens.  We forget that, in the beginning, we were all subjects of King George III.

Given that the United States was birthed from primarily British stock, when and why did differences in spelling occur? For example, the chiefly British theatre became the American theater.  Centre became center, litre/liter, sabre/saber and fibre/fiber.  And those are just of few of the “re/er” words.  We cannot ignore the “our/or” words, such as honour/honor or colour/color, or those annoying “ce/se” ones like defence/defense.  The answer turns out to be more complex than I could have, but probably should have imagined.

English is a robust, living language, and the language of any dynamic society will change as that society changes.  It is inevitable.  Many of the differences between British and American English can be traced to a Viking leader named Rollo.  In 911, Charles the Simple of France granted Rollo and his group of Vikings, whom he had defeated in battle, permission to settle along the northern coast of France.  It was Charles’s intention that these Vikings would ward off further Viking attacks upon his domain.  It was a successful venture and Rollo’s Vikings adapted themselves to the culture of northern France, becoming known as Northmen from which Normandy is derived.[1]  Setting aside the alliances, arranged marriages and buckets of blood that followed, in 1072 England found herself ruled by a Norman king—a French king.  As a direct result, Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French, displaced Old English and became the language of the English aristocracy.[2]  Though England has long since reverted to an English sovereign, the effects of Anglo-Norman are obvious in today’s Modern English.  This is the origin of the “-re”, “-our”, etc. words mentioned earlier.

How did we Americans come by our spellings of those Anglo-Norman words?  Noah Webster.

Okay, not entirely Noah Webster.  Many spellings happen as a result of the dynamic evolution of language.  Technology gave us Internet, hypertext, et alAspirin was originally a German trademark for A(cetyl)+SPIR(säure)+IN.  (Spirsäure is the German name of the meadowsweet plant from which salicylic acid could be derived.)  The name of my home state of Texas is alleged to be the result of a Spanish misspelling of the Caddoan word for “friends”.[3]  Back to Mr. Webster.

Noah Webster’s time at Yale College was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War, when he served with the Connecticut Militia.  One cannot discount the influence this must have had when, in the 1780’s, Mr. Webster began a concerted effort to “rescue ‘our native tongue’ from ‘the clamor of pedantry’ that surrounded English grammar and punctuation.”[4]  His three volume publication, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, consisted of a speller, a grammar and a reader (published in 1783, 1784 and 1785, respectively).  In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and set about the following year creating The American Dictionary of the English Language, a task that would take another 27 years to complete.

“Slowly, he changed the spelling of words, such that they became ‘Americanized’. He chose s over c in words like defense; he changed the re to er in words like center; he dropped one of the Ls in traveller; at first, he kept the u in words like colour or favour, but he dropped it in later editions.”[4]

May all your simple questions have simple answers.





Reading the entire Wikipedia entry will provide a more complete picture of the effects of the Norman Conquest of England.