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PUBLISHED: Feb 14, 2017 2:13pm

Americans revolutionised English spelling, but were stopped from going too far



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NEW YORK, 14 Feb 2017: 

If you get confused about why a common English word is spelt differently – ‘centre’ or ‘center’ – blame the Americans for wanting to be different from their colonial British masters after the 1776 revolution that eventually created the United States.

The change in English spelling if often attributed to Benjamin Franklin – an inventor who described as a ‘Founding Father’ of the US, with his legacy enshrined in the US$100 currency bill and often described as ‘the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States’.

His suggestion that English words be spelt the way they are spoken gained much favour in the newly independent nation – but most balked when he proposed to drop some letters like ‘c’, ‘w’, ‘y’ from the alphabet.

The biggest influence in the spelling change in America was due to Noah Webster, who created the now famous Webster’s Dictionary in 1806. He was also instrumental in adding two letters we still use today – ‘j’ and ‘v’ – which used to be simply listed as alternate forms of ‘i’ and ‘u’.

Webster also deleted many silent letters in English words that had been derived from the French – removing the ‘u’ from ‘colour’ to ‘color’ and rearranged letters to be better reflect the pronunciation – that’s why American spell ‘center’ instead of ‘centre’.

Fortunately, not all of Webster’s suggestions were accepted by the American public – he tried changing the ‘ch’ and ‘ti’ spelling into ‘sh’(eg ‘machine’ and ‘lotion’); and dropping the silent ‘s’ (eg ‘island’).

Still, some of his suggestions stuck – ‘plowed’ replaced ‘ploughed’ and Americans became accustomed to pronouncing ‘flour’ as ‘flower’ – thanks to George and Charles Merriam, who bought over the Webster dictionary after his death.

The American revolution of English spelling continues today, but even President Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t cement some major changes he proposed in 1906 – where words that ended in ‘-ed’ was to be simplified to end in ‘-t’ (eg ‘mixed’ to become ‘mixt’).

The president’s attempt to institutionalise the latest spelling changes ended after public ridicule, which included his name being spelt ‘Ruzevelt’.



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