English vs English

Americans don’t spell like I do. Where I write “colour”, they write “color”. Where I write “dialogue”, they write “dialog”. Sometimes it feels like they’re doing it just to mess with me. They Americanise the word “Anglicise”. They spell “kilometre” differently and they don’t even use the damn things. What is America’s problem?

It all started in the 18th century, when a guy called Noah Webster proposed a series of changes that he believed would simplify the spelling, grammar and pronunciation of the English language. Some of these changes didn’t catch on. Many of them did, but only in America.

The British weren’t impressed. They almost choked on their cucumber sandwiches when they heard the news. They have refused, for a couple of centuries now, to adopt Webster’s reforms, and so have most of their former colonies. In Australia, where I live, American spelling is generally frowned upon. We almost choke on our vegemite sandwiches when we see it used.

The thing is, most of Webster’s changes made sense. He did simplify the language. American English is much more sensible and consistent than its British counterpart. Webster wasn’t being edgy. He wasn’t spelling ‘s’ words with a dollar sign. All he did was remove a few silent letters, and replace a few mispronounced letters with more appropriate alternatives.

But God forbid the English language be sensible. Especially when an American came up with the idea. So here we are, two hundred years later, living in a world divided. Two houses, separated by spelling, like the Montagues and the Capulets (presumably).

It’s getting harder to avoid using American English. Most computer spell-checkers use American spelling by default. Squiggly red lines pepper my documents, frowning at my spelling choices like stern little librarian caterpillars. The auto-correct function on my phone sneakily converts my British spelling to American. Sometimes I don’t even notice when it has happened. I have to be vigilant to maintain my linguistic heritage. But why do I even bother?

Is it anything more than pride? Are we British spellers simply refusing to admit defeat; refusing to accept that American English has won the war, and that the English-speaking world would be a better place if everybody just adopted the American way? Why are we so determined to protect our ‘honour’?

Recent statistics indicate that most of the 7 people who read this article will be American. When I use British spelling, I risk distracting those American readers. If a reader is busy thinking about where I come from, or whether I might be illiterate, they can’t possibly be paying close enough attention to the important points that I’m trying to make about tortoises.

The risk of distracting my non-American reader with American spelling is far, far lower. Such is America’s world-wide cultural penetration that if I were to switch from British to American spelling tomorrow, Basil would barely even notice the difference.

I’m tempted to go all the way and adopt American slang and idioms too. The use of slang and idioms is vastly more fragmented than the use of spelling systems. By describing things as I grew up describing them, I risk alienating everybody who didn’t go to my high school. But if I write like a character from an American sitcom, only the most dedicated cultural hermits will have trouble understanding me.

American English definitely seems like the most sensible way for the world to proceed. I know it will never happen, though. As the famous prophecy foretells, the day that sensible American spelling replaces the Queen’s indecipherable English, William Shakespeare’s animated corpse will rise from the dead and lurch from house to house, devouring the brains of the traitors as they sleep. And no amount of cross-cultural communication and understanding can justify that kind of bloodshed.

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