US Identity Built on Fancy Spelling

Despite their shared victory in the Revolutionary War, the USA did not emerge from it as a united nation. This, combined with his understanding that a language can unify its speakers and strengthen their collective culture, lead Noah Webster to compile the first American English dictionary.

Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828, introduced simplified and altered spelling forms in order to both create a sense of common identity for the new nation as well as assert its independence from the now disowned motherland. Thus the double consonant in ‘modelling’ and ‘worshipped’ became a single one, the u was dropped from ‘labour’ and the like; ‘advise’ is either a noun or a verb without spelling distinction, etc.

Today, it is interesting – or worrying – to note that the Oxford English Dictionary, the most common reference for British English spelling, prioritises the –ize form over the more British one, -ise, unlike its Cambridge counterpart. For those in the UK who are not too impressed by Americanisms (both in spelling and vocabulary form), it may be of some relief to know that the phenomenon is mutual, with some Americans not so keen on “Britishisms” either.

Despite history and geography, the commonality of the language transcends obstacle to the two countries exchanging new vocabulary or linguistic forms born on either side of the pond, demonstrating that languages have the power to bring people together, as Webster intended at a local level.

UK and USA flags

Photo: Getty Images


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