Two Ls where there should be one

My own English language is a kind of potluck. I say ‘film’, ‘doona’ and ‘bloke’, but I also say ‘chill’ an awful lot. As far as spelling goes, there are only a handful of Australian English spelling variants I really care about (‘doughnut’ and ‘aeroplane’ being among them). My use of ‘ass’ versus ‘arse’ is entirely context-dependent.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this. I use Australian English spelling – always colour and enrolment, never color and enrollment – because it’s what I was taught in school, and because it’s the preference of everyone I’ve written or edited for in Australia. Frankly, I don’t give it much thought. I don’t particularly care what others are using unless I’m editing their work. I don’t even think I really notice.

In the same way as we can understand native English speakers from Boston, Minneapolis and Sacramento with little difficulty, we’re also accustomed to consuming written media that adhere to the conventions of American English. If an article’s penchant for double quotation marks and favorite over favourite alerts us to the fact we’re likely reading an American piece, it does so in a dim and rather inconsequential way. No meaning is lost. We don’t fall to paroxysms of rage every time they omit an e or an l or a u.

When it comes to American English spelling in our own backyard, however, it turns out we feel pretty strongly about it. In a 2013 study, almost 75 per cent of Australians surveyed said they don’t like Americanised spelling.

There are several explanations for this. The first is a desire to differentiate ourselves from the United States. Australians never miss an opportunity to congratulate ourselves on our strict gun laws and superior social welfare. We’re flooded with American cultural product, and often we’re enchanted by it. But when it comes to certain other things – language included – Australia still seeks to distinguish itself from the US, and we cling doggedly to certain orthographic variations.

As the comments on this Februry Fairfax article show, the adoption of US spelling is an issue that gets us hot under the collar. It’s seen as a by-product of a wider trend toward Americanisation. ‘Australia is trying so desperately to be just like the USA (i.e. the Cool Kids) it’s lame,’ writes one commenter. ‘The Americanisation of everything is vulgar and without merit,’ laments another. It’s a slippery slope: one day you swap -ise for -ize and call something ‘awesome’; the next you’re draped in stars and stripes and riding a mechanical bull into the golden arches of hell, where you swear before Donald Trump with one hand on Webster’s dictionary.

In fact, there’s not much evidence to suggest Australian spelling is moving toward American English. Earlier this year, researcher Minna Korhonen found a preference for ‘preservation of e before suffixes as in likeable and judgement’ typically associated with British and Australian English (as contrasted with the ‘shorter’ American English versions) amongst her survey respondents. Interestingly, the use of these ‘e-forms’ has, in fact, increased among the youngest participants from 2005 to 2013. In a separate study, Fritz Clemens found that the trend toward American English spelling variants is ‘restricted to online use’, and concluded that on the whole, Australian English ‘neither […] obediently follow[s] British models, nor […] succumb[s] to modern AmE influences.’

Another possible reason for our rejection of American English spelling is the perception of British English as being somehow superior. This is something I noticed when reading comments on other Australian articles on the topic. ‘Correct English is British English – it is our language, after all,’ opines one commenter on this Australian-English-versus-American-English cheat sheet. This mentality irks me on a couple of levels. Chiefly, the linguistic imperialism it implies, but also the self-righteous sense of possession. No-one owns language. None of us can be credited with creating it. The idea that a native speaker born in Manchester has claim to greater linguistic capital than a native speaker born in Perth, Singapore, Baltimore or Bridgetown is absurd.

A third explanation for our defence of Australian English is simple jingoism. Naturally, our swampy sense of identity extends to our language. We couldn’t possibly take up American English, because it wouldn’t be our own. (Never mind the hundreds of languages spoken in Australia before British colonisation: –ise is the Australian way.) This language-as-identity logic is closely linked to both our desire to distance ourselves from the United States and our apparent residual reverence for British English. Yet as Fritz Clemens notes, ‘Australian English indeed has its own spelling traditions and […] they are not the result of haphazard choices from British and American English.’ Australian English spelling distinguishes us from the rest of the English-speaking world, and we’ll defend it with flag-waving choler against those Seppos.

But in my recent journeys as an Internet Explorer, I learned something about Noah Webster, the father of the American dictionary. Given he was a staunch proponent of American independence, Webster’s desire to Americanise and standardise spelling makes sense. But his orthographic variations also came from a place of phonetic simplicity and pragmatism – hence the purging of the u in words like favourite, and the double l as in levelling.

He also ditched dipthongs (so paediatrician becomes pediatrician) and some phonetically extraneous word endings (programme becomes program; catalogue becomes catalog and so on), and made a raft of other changes which, on the whole, make English spelling less complicated and elitist. He believed phonetic spelling would make the language more accessible to both children and non-native speakers.

Did everyone already know this? I’ve never studied linguistics. Maybe it’s general knowledge I somehow missed. In any case, flavor and center have stopped looking so heinous, and started making a lot more sense.

When I interrogate my own vague preferences for Australian English, there’s no substantial reasoning behind it. I’m not about to abandon my aeroplane and my doughnut, but I understand if others do.


Image: John Keogh / Flickr

Jennifer Down

Jennifer Down is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, will be published by Text in 2016.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I feel we should continue the standardisation started by whitlam (labor instead of Labour) and make our own pragmatic English. How can you defend a language where should and wood rhyme?

  2. Interesting read – What can I add?

    Well, if through oral interfacing, we move back into oracy, as Ong suggested, spelling will be irrelevant once again. Certainly a non-standardised spelling makes for a less literate, or more oral culture, in the sense there is no set image of the word in the head. So spelling can be a test of written literacy in that sense, and judgements made from positions of power, as women discovered after the advent of the printing presses.

    Further, machines seem to be standardising spelling at the moment [Controlling machines may well be the next literacy; as I am typing this some of my spellings are being overwritten and I am changing them back], notably US spellings through Google etc., and whether that is made irrelevant through an oracy drive, who knows? Not me. I’m simply spinning a yarn off the top of my head here.

    Anyway, the more traditional English spellings are interesting in that they retain a lot of the forms of those different languages which have fed English, and those languages which English has fed on in its turn, all of which will be lost through phoneticisation. Depends on what the educational powers that be want, I guess, and for whatever reasons.

    Simply some thoughts from a non-expert in the field, and who knows, I may be out firmly in my place here.

    Thanks for the read.

    1. It’s odd too how, when you look back at what you have written with a cold eye, how not only spelling mistakes leap out at you, but syntactical and grammatical ones to boot.

      I wanted to add too, as most know, that it is those unspoken or unexpressed bits of words from older languages which make English words difficult to spell for many children (and adults). Humiliating really, so phoneticisation (if there is such a word), would be good thing for many.

      Also, not a lot of painters these days seem to be able to draw, and language fixation through spelling rules etc. can take some of the blame. Children, for example, learn to draw stereotypical representations of things in the world based on language names and descriptions, rather than actually (* a no go zone word on OL, apparently) looking at and studying the world beyond words (language) in order to put whatever it is in visual form.

      A bit off the track now – sorry – adieu!

      1. Should say summat about spelling rules too, eh? What a farce! Like in most bourgeois economies, deviances are measured from imaginary norms, norms which don’t exist, and penalties apply for deviations and deviants. In spelling’s case, more often than not there are more exceptions to, than conformations of, its manufacrured rules (i before e except after c, for examples). And to brag a bit, I guess, I won a spelling competition between the major Public Schools in a large Australian capital once – it came down to a playoff between the favoured son of a Bigwig, and the underdog son of a coalminer / union rep – and I wasn’t going to let the side down – I wouldn’t have been welcome at the table for a week if I did. The word it came down to? Something fittingly farcical – the film having just been released in town and the thinking being, I guess, that I wouldn’t have had the privilege to see the stupid thing, and so know how to spell – supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (did I get it correct?).

  3. Although most of the work I edit is in American English, I still prefer UK/Australian. For me it’s about aesthetics. I just think ‘favourite’ or ‘colour’ look so much prettier with a ‘u’ in them. They seem to lack something when it’s missing. And travelling. How sad it looks with only one ‘l’. Don’t get me started on the ugliness of pediatric or fetal. Ugh.

    I guess it could be just that I’m used to it, but language has to feel comfortable for me… if a word is not spelt the way I expect, it bothers me. As an editor, that’s a bonus, because it means that spelling and grammatical errors jump off the page for me. I guess I’m resigned to the fact that language changes and US English will subsume all others, at some point. But hopefully not for a long time yet. I love the idiosyncrasies and the possibly illogical rules and conventions of Australian English, and I’ll be sad when it disappears.

  4. I teach English as a second language and so I come at this from a different perspective. One has to be aware of the differences and if international students are using American over British/Australian English then that is fine. However, I like to point out that there are differences and I like to preserve these differences, not for the sake of Jingoism, as you state in your article, but for the sake of diversity. The fact is that international students’ English is usually American, such is the US cultural and political dominance in the world, not to mention the dominance of English all over the world, no doubt begun when Britain ruled over more than half the globe.

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