Differences between British and American Spelling

There are spelling differences between “English” English, American English and Canadian English. These differences sometimes cause problems and misunderstandings between people.

US and UK flags

How did these differences come about and what are the differences?

History

Spelling in British English was not standardized until the middle of the nineteenth century. Words were spelled however the writer chose to do so before then.

After the American war of Independence Noah Webster published “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” in 1806 introducing the features in spelling that would distinguish American spelling for ever more. Webster published more dictionaries during his lifetime expanding on the spelling differences. It was done to differentiate and distinguish American English.

Dictionaries are still published in The United States under the Webster’s name, and it is the dictionary of choice for Americans in much the same way as “The Oxford English Dictionary” is for the British.

The Differences

The main spelling differences between British and American spelling follow particular patterns.

Where native English speaker would write “The traveller found a theatre in the centre of the town at which he thoroughly enjoyed the humour in the play”.

An American would write “The traveler found a theater in the center of the town, at which he thoroughly enjoyed the humor in the play.

In British English both “recognise” and “recognize” is a correct spelling but in American English only “recognize” is correct. The British English “Archaeology” and “manoeuvre” are “archeology” and “maneuver” in American English. “Licence” and “defence” in English are “license and “defense” in American English. A dialogue is a “dialog” in American English.

Note: Webster’s spelling differences were done quite deliberately to create distance between America and Europe and emphasize that America was a new country. It must make it tough for Americans since English people know by looking at a word from which language it originally derived.

The Evolution

Both American and British English have evolved and changed as language always has. Spelling differences are part of this evolution.

British English has never been deliberately altered any changes have arisen through the natural evolution of the language. There are proposals that arise every so often to simplify the spelling in British English. It is to be hoped that they never come to fruition.

Language is a major element of a country’s culture as the play “Translations” by Brian Friel amply illustrates. If British English spellings were to be simplified, the English people would be disconnecting themselves from a rich part of their culture and their heritage.

Final Word

Oscar Wilde said that “England and America are two nations divided by a common language.”

Neither the spellings in British English or American English are wrong, both are right. Americans and English people should concentrate on what unites them rather than what divides them and not try to impose their form of spelling on one another. Understanding one another is far more important than silly quibbles about spelling differences.