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