The British Navy may not rule the waves these days and the empire has long since crumbled, but its legacy lives on. English is now the most widely used language in the world and has become the international language of business. England may lay claim to having “invented” the language, but it would be wrong to assume that they hold any ownership of it whatsoever. A constant source of teasing and even heated argument stems from the differences between regional variations, especially when those regions are as big and influential as the United States. We now talk of British English, American English, Canadian English, Australian English, and so on. Variations in English have become a distinguishing national characteristic and this should be celebrated.
Of course, languages are not really invented—except for a select few like Esperanto—but naturally evolve. As populations migrate, regional variations emerge and branch off, assimilating with other regional variations. American English was naturally very similar to British English when the first pioneers landed on the American continent, but the split from Britain would have led to differences over time without any intervention. However, languages can also be forcibly changed and many of the differences in spelling between UK and American English can be attributed to one man’s mission: a certain dictionary author called Noah Webster.
Webster’s goal was to simplify the language and to save it from the “clamour of pedantry” that he claimed surrounded it in Britain. He was a revolutionary and nationalist, and sought an American utopia, completely separate from Britain. He wrote many works but one of the most popular and successful was what became known as the “Blue Backed Speller”, which was first published in 1783. Many a generation of US children grew up learning English from this book and today’s Merriam-Webster dictionaries are descendants of this very book. It is because of Webster that US citizens talk of flavor, fiber, recognize, dialog and gray, while the Brits use flavour, fibre, recognise, dialogue and grey. Webster also wanted to use tung instead of tongue, but that one never took off!
Apart from Webster’s forced changes, research has actually proven that it was not so much that American English moved away from British English, but that British English continued to evolve rapidly while American English remained closer to that spoken in the 17th century. You can see how studying language can really reveal much about a nation’s history. To study British spelling is also to study the origins and evolution of England. To study American spelling is also to study its fight for independence and the values it was built upon.
Canadian English is a mix of the two. Because of its historical ties with Britain, many spellings are the same as British English, but because of its proximity with the United States, US spellings are also used and accepted. There is still no clearly defined Canadian standard but most governmental departments tend to favour British spelling except for the z in recognize. For some, it is also a source of national pride to distinguish themselves from the United States with spelling, in the same way that the maple leaf is sewn onto backpacks when travelling abroad to help those who have trouble distinguishing between Canadian and US accents.
With Australia, New Zealand and other commonwealth countries also favouring British English, this variant of spelling is certainly used by more countries. But as two-thirds of the English-speaking world live in the United States, US spelling is the more commonly used in terms of number of people! It is clear that having one standard spelling for the English language is exceedingly unlikely. But it begs the question, should there be? Would it not be easier if everyone spoke and wrote the same brand of English? Wouldn’t it easier for non-English speakers to learn one standard English instead of choosing between the two major variants?
Certainly if you’re Canadian, you might feel that coming down on either the British or the US side might make sense. But there is a third option and it’s essentially the option that has been adopted by default, and that’s to retain a mix of the two spelling variants. It’s this mix of the two that makes Canadian English distinct from either of the other two major variants. The British will continue to teach British spelling in their schools, the States will continue to use US spelling, and the Canadians will probably continue to accept a mix of the two—add in a few choice words like toque and loonie and you have what is now known as Canadian English. For the very reasons that Noah Webster wanted to establish a completely separate American English from British English, perhaps Canada should embrace its own stance as a country with strong links to both countries but still with its own unique character.
Spelling may seem a relatively minor characteristic of a country’s identity, but it is profoundly tied to a nation’s history and therefore culture. The world is becoming increasingly globalized as it is, so perhaps each of these little cultural differences are to be embraced.
Disclaimer: The author is British, a resident of Canada and translator/editor of British, American and Canadian English. An argument for standardization would be that there are too many style guides to be consulted in this profession!