England and America are two countries divided by a common language. – George Bernard Shaw
Like all Europeans, I was taught the English language as it is spoken in the country of its origin:England. I was drilled in spelling, grammar and punctuation for many years, having my fingers slapped when I made mistakes and made to write each misspelled word ten times. In this way, British English was tattooed into my brain. When I started writing professionally, I thought that this would be a great asset. Indeed, when I worked with editors at publishing houses in Ireland, I was complimented on my clean copy and my good spelling skills. I thought then, that spelling the British way correctly would be a good thing when I launched my books into the e-book market. This turned out to be a mistaken assumption.
Naturally, having read a lot of American books, I know English is spelled differently in America. This never bothered me, nor did it ever ruin my enjoyment of a book. I had no idea that my British spelling would become such an issue with readers over there. I found out very quickly, however, that British spelling is considered by many Americans at best, wrong and at worst, stupid. American readers would sometimes give me bad reviews for spelling “nearly every word” wrong. “Everyone knows that cozy is not spelled ‘cosy’”, one reviewer mocked. “Jewellery is not spelled like that even in Britain,” another sneered. Well, excuse me, it is. I use the Oxford Dictionary when uncertain about spelling and also when being slapped down about certain words. Maybe reviewers should check it too before they criticise? I am not talking about typos, which are found in practically every book and, indeed, are present to some extent in mine.
I noticed that some of my American writer friends are very annoyed when they read English books, one of them saying that “the Brits are allergic to the letter z.” And that “they have a mania for inserting the letter u where it doesn’t belong” (as in colour and favour).
Well, hello? They inserted absolutely nothing. The English spoken in Britain is the original version, is it not?
Why did Americans tinker with the English language and then say it is the only right way to spell? The British have been incredibly kind and patient not to start a political conflict after having their beautiful language “simplified” in this way. I know for a fact that British readers swallow American spelling with great tolerance and patience and hardly ever complain or call anything with American spelling a “mistake”. So I feel slightly bewildered by the militant attitude of Americans when confronted with British spelling.
I know that America is a huge melting pot and that the English language has been greatly influenced by people from all over the world, adding their touch and making the language richer in many ways. Europeans and British people are aware of this and have, in a way, become bilingual when it comes to the different ways of spelling and speaking. Why then can Americans not show the same tolerance? Why do American readers not accept that British spelling is the original version?
Feeling confused and a little bruised, I decided to ask my fellow writer Rags Daniels what his take is on all of this and how he, as an Englishman, feels about having his language tinkered with by foreigners.
Me: Why did Americans remove the ‘u’ in so many words? And why did they change the letter s to z in realise, analyse, compromise and other similarly spelled words?
Rags: Simply because they felt a need to create a nations history by destroying the etymology of the English language and creating their own. Thereby casting aside thousands of years of refinement and going back to cave painting by fulfilling the need to add ‘smileys’ to express their feelings.
Me: I see. But I like smileys… They make me happy… And there are, to be honest, some great sayings and expressions used by Americans that are very amusing and colo(u)rful. Which the British borrow and use with great abandon. Is this not like cherry picking? It seems a little mean to take their best sayings and then dismissing what we don’t like, doesn’t it?
But apart from the spelling, I also find their vocabulary very strange. Americans don’t remember, they “recall”, they don’t suppose, they “guess”. They call autumn “fall” and they don’t go on holiday but have “vacations”. They never wear trousers or knickers and call track suits “sweats”. Those are just a few things that differ to the English spoken across the pond.
Rags….To reiterate, ‘American English’ is a lazy man’s English. And when one has been taught, as you have, in the use of hundreds of years of language refinement, only to see it decimated by a people lacking in the art of perfectionism, one can only assume it a desperate attempt at breaking with tradition and deliberately creating a mulligatawny of linguistic nuances.
Me: But that is surely not a bad thing? Mulligatawny is a delicious soup with many flavo(u)rs, is it not? So, in conclusion, we Europeans and Brits, don’t mind the odd Mexican spice or a little African herb. But Americans don’t go for British bangers and mash, or even roast beef with horseradish… Are we all going to end up in Mc Donald’s?
What is the solution? What is going to happen to the English language? Will there eventually be some kind of amalgamation of the two that we can all accept? Maybe like text speak? As in: cu l8er? Imagine a whole novel written like this. Seems impossible right now. But it might be the language of the future.