Should UK and US Spellings be homogenised, as is happening for Portuguese?

March 9, 2012 by totalityservices

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The British have a poorly disguised dislike of American spellings. But wouldn’t it be easier if we all started using the same spellings? After all, if the Brazilians and Portuguese can do it, why can’t we?

The British tend to turn their noses up at American spellings and do not take kindly to being forced to use them. So when the Royal Society of Chemistry decided some years ago that spelling of the element ‘sulphur’ should be changed to the US spelling ‘sulfur’ in all UK textbooks and examination papers to avoid confusion, British dictionary scholars were far from pleased.

One irate scholar even wrote to complain that if prospective chemistry students really find the difference between sulphur and sulfur confusing then they are probably not suited to studying the subject. He also pointed out that there are seven towns in the United States named for element 16: in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nevada, Texas, Wyoming, Arkansas and South Dakota. All of them are named Sulphur.

But what is it about using US spellings that really gets us British going?

Of course US spellings are already used systematically in medical and scientific publications, with spellings such as ‘fetus’ (instead of ‘foetus’) and esophagus (instead of ‘oesophagus’) being commonplace. And many of us wrongly have the assumption that spelling words with ‘-ize’ rather than ‘-ise’ is an Americanism, though this can be attributed to misinformation and a defensive attitude to the ascendancy of American spelling.

In fact Britain is divided over whether to use ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize’ forms, with ‘-ise’ forms being favoured in the mass media and newspapers, as well as in EU English language documents, but with British-based academic publications favouring ‘-ize’.

Use of ‘-ize’ is actually known as the Oxford spelling, and is favoured by the renowned Oxford English Dictionary, whereas Cambridge University Press has long preferred ‘-ise’. Maybe the time has come to decide whether your allegiances lie with Oxford or Cambridge? The OED’s argument for using ‘-ize’ is that is corresponds to the phonetics of the word and to the Greek and Latin suffixes that the words are formed from etymologically, and as such there is no reason to use the Anglo-French spelling ‘-ise’, except perhaps for words that came to us via French from Latin forms (and not from Greek).

In the face of the economic might of the United States, is it perhaps a paranoid fear of losing our status in both culture and academia that makes the British so determined to hang on to their spellings? Or is it a more instinctive dislike of change, change that alters the way words look and therefore the way we perceive them and the way they make us feel? Does anyone else think that ‘sulphur’ looks a lot prettier than ‘sulfur’? If you do then perhaps you should take note of what is happening in the Portuguese speaking world. After all, it could be us next.

The recently approved Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement was envisaged to be a compromise solution to allow Portuguese speaking nations to move towards unified spellings, in order to give these nations greater international weight both economically and culturally. In practice this has meant, for the most part, a move in favour of Brazilian Portuguese spellings. Are you starting to see a pattern? Big economic power, larger population, spellings that carry more weight. It all sounds quite familiar.

The agreement was originally signed in 1990, but ended up spending more than a decade in limbo before coming into force in 2008. In Brazil the changes have become official with the old spellings only remaining valid until 31 December 2012, and major media outlets are already adhering to the new spelling rules. In Portugal, although the agreement was ratified in May 2008, a 6-year transitional period has been allowed. The government adopted the spelling reforms in official documents on 1 January 2012 and in the country’s official gazette. However only some of the country’s official newspapers have so far adopted the spellings.

Among the spelling reforms are the loss of quite a number of silent consonants from European Portuguese, such as ‘actualmente’ becoming ‘atualmente’ and ‘projecção’ becoming ‘projeção’. European Portuguese speakers have described the odd feelings they have experienced at seeing words that they have been using all their lives, spelt in a different way in newspapers and novels.

For art forms where the physical appearance of a word is important, such as poetry, this brings up another issue – should poets use the new spelling forms, and if so, how does this affect and alter both the new art that they produce and their previous work? After all, changing the spellings in a poem changes the form of the poem entirely, and could affect its interpretation as well.

The English speaking world, and the British in particular, should be watching the progress of the Portuguese spelling reforms closely and taking heed. It might well be us in ten years’ time.

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