Greetings readers! Today we will be exploring the fascinating history behind why American English tends to drop the letter U in words like “colour” and “favourite” compared to British English. This difference can be traced back hundreds of years and sheds light on the divergent paths English took on both sides of the Atlantic. So buckle up for a journey through the quirks and evolution of the English language!
The Origins of American English
American English first began to take shape during the 17th century, when English settlers arrived in North America and began establishing colonies. At this time, there was no standardized form of English – spelling, grammar, and pronunciation varied greatly depending on factors like region and social class. However, some trends emerged that would lay the groundwork for American English as we know it today.
Many early American settlers came from southern England, where dropping of “silent” letters was already common in certain dialects. This included words like “colour” and “favourite” where the U was frequently not pronounced. As these settlers created new communities in America, their speech patterns took hold as the standard.
Additionally, America was made up of people from a variety of British backgrounds who needed to find a common way to communicate. Simplifying spelling by dropping extraneous letters helped streamline written language, even if pronunciations remained complex.
Noah Webster & American Spelling Reform
While written American English was beginning to diverge from British English by the late 1700s, it was Noah Webster who cemented some of these changes in his American Spelling Book published in 1783. Webster championed spelling reform, arguing that English orthography was overly complex and irregular. He advocated for wholesale changes to spelling that would update it based on pronunciation patterns.
Although most of Webster’s proposed reforms were too radical, he did succeed in popularizing certain Americanized spellings. He defended dropping extraneous letters like the U in “colour” and “favourite” as a pragmatic way to simplify writing. This aligned with his broader goal of promoting an American national identity through language.
Webster included these spellings without the U in his widely used Spelling Book, helping to disseminate them throughout the newly formed United States.
The Influence of Dictionary-Makers
While Webster pushed certain spelling reforms, it was the dominant dictionaries that ultimately codified the acceptance of “Americanized” spellings without the extra U. Dictionaries carry authority in standardizing language, and early American dictionary-makers followed Webster’s lead on these spellings.
In 1828, Webster published his own American Dictionary of the English Language promoting spellings like “color” and “favorite” as well as other reforms. While not every change was adopted, his dictionary lent legitimacy to dropping the U in certain words.
Joseph Worcester’s influential A Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language in 1830 also included American spellings. The successive editions of these landmark dictionaries, along with those by dictionary-maker Noah Porter, made the Americanized forms standard. They chose pragmatic spelling simplification over adhering to etymological origins.
The Growth of American Publishing
As American publishing grew in scale during the 19th century, the American spellings with omitted Us were proliferated in widely read newspapers, magazines, and books. Major American publications chose the simplified versions that aligned with Webster’s dictionaries and the evolving status quo.
At the same time, British English also continued to evolve, maintaining spellings like “colour” while even the British adopted some Americanized spellings like “center” versus “centre.” But the divergence remained intact – “color” prevailed stateside while “colour” dominated in Britain.
By 1906, the American spellings were so commonplace that President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Public Printer to adopt simplified versions like “although” and “through” for all official government documents. America now had clearly distinct spelling standards despite its British foundations.
Examining Other Differences
The dropped U is not the only difference between British and American spelling. Here are some other examples:
These variations emerged from similar historical trends – simplified phonetic-based spelling and a push towards American linguistic independence. But while many differences emerged, British and American English remain mutually intelligible varieties of the same language.
Modern Views on the Split
Today, the distinction between British and American English spelling is well established. Certain words will continue to epitomize the divide – “colour” versus “color” for example. But there is generally little controversy or confusion over this.
What were once considered radical Americanizations are now seen as unremarkable norms. The truncated spellings fit American phonology and aesthetics. And major dictionaries and style guides outline the differences, reducing ambiguity.
Some language experts argue the subtle variations add flavour and flexibility to English. Others contend that streamlining towards a more universal English would aid international communication. But any future changes seem unlikely to erase the entrenched differences that originated from the divergent evolutions of British versus American English over hundreds of years.
So the next time you see an American “favorite” versus a British “favourite”, you can reflect on the complex history behind this modest but emblemmatic distinction!
The dropped U in American spellings of words like “color” and “favorite” has its origins in the early development of American English from British roots. Historical factors like early American settlers’ speech patterns, Noah Webster’s spelling reforms, and the growth of American publishing solidified these changes. While subtle, this difference between British and American orthography reflects the larger story of how American English emerged with its own distinct identity and standards.