Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why Do Americans Spell 'Colour' Without a 'U'?

It is quite common for British prescriptivists (people who don't welcome change to the language) to bemoan the American spelling of words like colour. They will often comment that "Americans have dumbed English down", that the simplification of the language only came about because "Americans are not cultured."

As with a large percentage of word differences, the American spelling of color was the direct decision of one very important man: Noah Webster. Famously, Webster introduced the relatively young nation of the United States to the dictionary, an influential book that helped to demarcate American English from Dr. Johnson's British English.

Some years before the publication of Webster's book, however, there was much debate among settlers over whether or not English should even be adopted by the very country that was trying to become independent from Britain. Because of a small German influence in the New World, the German language was even suggested for Americans.

However, Webster, who bore somewhat of a political influence, pushed for not only the introduction of English, but the American standardisation (or should I say standardization?) of it. It was his belief that America needed to be independent not only politically and economically from the British, but artistically - particularly when it came to literature.

It was in his A Compendious Dictionary, an abridged version of the more expansive dictionary that would come later, that colour was changed to color, centre to center and programme to program. Bizarrely, a central tenet of Webster's standardisation strategy was the idea that chopping down words would save money, since shorter words would equate to fewer pages in print publications.

Webster was not interested in "dumbing down" English, but rather ridding it of the many inconsistencies that still exist today. Indeed, something that is often overlooked is that Webster had proposed countless other changes that were ultimately rejected by the American public.

In fact, if Webster had had his way, I'd now be referring to the American publick. Half of this publick would be wimmen. And if you developed a few akes and pains after falling off your sley in winter, someone would determin that a warm spunge might be the order of the day.

Many have argued that American standardisation has robbed English of its glamour, a word, incidentally, that Americans normally spell with a u. But I would argue that there is nothing more glamorous in linguistics than a vibrant, ever-evolving vernacular.

Especially one with colo(u)r.



Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States.


3 comments:

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

Good post! As an English teacher, the questions about the relationship between the spelling of the word and the pronunciation often stump me, so simpler is better. In some cases, the American English is closer to the pronunciation, like in color or theater. In others, it's still mystifying. This document is one of my favorites: http://www.harbeck.ca/James/harbeck_spelling_handout_20090606.pdf

vp said...

While Webster was very influential in ensuring that spelling like "color" became the American standard, he did not invent them. "Color" was the original spelling in Latin, and it was a long-established variant in English (here is a random hit from Google Books, from an English book published in the mid eighteenth century).

In several words, such as "error", "mirror", and "governor", both British and Americans have dropped the formerly common "u". Search Dr Johnson's dictionary, and you will find these words listed as "errour", "governour", etc.

Irene C. said...

Artistic independence in and of itself was not so much Webster's goal as was standardization and, crucially, the promotion of republican linguistic habits. He wanted, in other words, to purify American English of what were considered aristocratic embellishments, and to base inclusion in his dictionary on the standard of how people spoke, as opposed to a written standard. Plus, there was a perceived need to further unify the states by adopting a single spelling for both New Hampshire and Georgia and everywhere in between, u-inclusive or not.

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