Spotlight on Standard American English and Standard British English

Spelling differences between the two standard varieties

Term Paper, 2007

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Historical stages and reasons for the development of spelling differences between AmE and BrE.
2.1 A brief survey of the first settlements, the establishment of printing, and the beginning of American writing
2.2 Early efforts of spelling reform and their influence on American spelling
2.3 The linguistic patriotism and the standardisation of American spelling
2.4 Further reform efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

3 Overview about differences between contemporary AmE and BrE in spelling and punctuation
3.1 Standard spellings
3.1.1 Simplification
3.1.2 Regularisation
3.1.3 Derivational uniformity
3.1.4 Reflection of pronunciation
3.2 Individual words differing in spelling
3.3 Punctuation

4 Situation of AmE and BrE in the world today

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Throughout the 20th century, Standard British English (hereafter BrE) and Standard American English (hereafter AmE) made up the two ‘reference varieties’ of the English language. Even today - in the 21st century – BrE and AmE represent “a large proportion of all native speakers of English (83 per cent)” [Svartvik & Leech 2006: 150] in the world. The reason why these two varieties have aquired such a prestigious position among many other varieties of English is that in Great Britain and in the United States - two of the most influential nations of the 20th century in terms of political power and economical strength – “English has been institutionalised longer than anywhere else” [Cheshire 1991: 13]. Consequently, BrE and AmE “provided the chief native-speaker models which non-native speaking teachers of English” [Svartvik & Leech 2006: 150] aim to instil.

Although both ‘reference varieties’ of English seem to be very much the same at first sight, “British and American English undoubtedly are different, and Englishmen and Americans undoubtedly know it.” [Partridge & Clark 1951: 308]. Closer investigations reveal that AmE is different from BrE at levels of phonetics, phonology, grammar, lexis and spelling. Whereas the fields of pronunciation and lexis definitely share the most prominent and numerous differences between AmE and BrE, the field of spelling shows only a couple of minor differences. Today, the vast majority of English lexis is spelled the same in AmE and BrE. However - to a certain extent - there are some characteristic spelling differences between AmE and BrE which many learners of English are not well familiar with.

In the following, this paper concentrates on pointing out the major differences in spelling between contemporary AmE and BrE since this linguistic field of interest is very strongly related to the different historical and political developments America and Great Britain went through. Therefore, this paper will first work out some historical reasons for the development of spelling differences between the two ‘reference varieties’ and highlight America’s most influential attempts to standardise American spelling. Afterwards, it will give a detailed overview about the most prominent and common spelling differences between AmE and BrE by categorising them into three major groups and providing a couple of examples for each group, and finally, this paper will briefly reflect on the situation of AmE and BrE in the world today.

2 Historical stages and reasons for the development of spelling differences between AmE and BrE

2.1 A brief survey of the first settlements, the establishment of printing, and the beginning of American writing

Originally, “American English spelling began as a set of patterns, rules, and preferences that traveled across the Atlantic from England” [Algeo 2001: 340] to North America. Thus, one can say that the core of American spelling is basically derived from British spelling [cf. Algeo 2001: 340].

From the beginning of the 17th century onwards, British settlers and mariners began to establish permanent settlements on the North American continent and expansed all over the American East Coast until the middle of the 18th century [cf. Trudgill & Hannah 2002: 4]. Once arrived, the settlers “found themselves in a very diverse linguistic culture” [Finegan & Rickford 2004: 4], and soon they came into contact with various Amerindian languages of the native tribes. However, the British settlers were by far more educated than the natives and so it happened that the first “centers of language authority from which unique orthographic principles might arise – printing houses, authors, lexicographers, legal administrators, and the like” [Algeo 2001: 341] were predominantly created and influenced by the settlers. Of course, the settlers spoke and wrote in English as it was their mother tongue, and so the primary spelling models used in the North American colonies were taken over from England, although English spelling was not completely homogeneous at the beginning of the 17th century [cf. Algeo 2001: 341].

The printing press in North America was not very influential on “the regularization of English spelling” [Algeo 2001: 343] because the press only supplied the local areas as the costs for paper and transportation were very expensive. Furthermore, the press was not very widespread since up to 1675, there were no more than two printings established in all of the colonies.

Since the end of the 17th century, English writers like Dryden became increasingly popular in the colonies because their books were continuously imported from England. During that time, American authorship started to develop almost simultaneously. However, most American writers tended to copy and imitate the style and the vocabulary of their English role models. One of the most important American writers of that time was definitely Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, for example, who was a great fan of English writers, took over the regular past tense form ‘d (liv’d, look’d, pull’d), as it was common to do so in England during that time [cf. Algeo 2001: 342]. American authors also aimed to send their publications overseas, and, therefore, it was necessary not to stick to the ‘archaic spellings’ but to adopt the English ‘modern spellings’ in order to receive recognition.

Another reason why American and English spelling were very much the same during the early 18th century concerns education. Up to 1746, there were only three colleges established in the colonies – Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale - and many wealthy families decided to send their children abroad for educational purposes where they gained a modern orientation to English spelling, which was already fairly stabilised by the beginning of the 18th century [cf. Algeo 2001: 342-343].

Nevertheless, the writing among the American authors was not completely unified and “usage was not totally fixed” [Algeo 2001: 343]. Though the word endings –our and -re were favoured over –or and –er in ‘modern spelling’, it happened that the modern and the archaic spelling form - as in honour and honor or centre and center - occured next to each other - even in the same text. Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin, for example, used capitalisation in order to stress important nouns in his texts, whereas Noah Webster, to whom this paper will refer later on in more detail, did not. It also happened occasionally that American writers used abbrevations which were not very common in ‘modern spelling’, so Benjamin Rush wrote en’o for enough and Ezra Stiles h’ble for humble – just to name some further examples.

2.2 Early efforts of spelling reform and their influence on American spelling

The first ideas about spelling reforms in America came up in the 1760s as the colonies were frequently supplied with children’s books published by Englishmen. These children’s books were regarded as a “practical moral instruction, embedded within humor and other forms of amusement” [Algeo 2001: 351], and so they were extremely valuable in a pedagogical sense. In order to make these books even more accessible for children, the first attempts of spelling reforms aimed to simplify English spelling by making it more regular. Another motivation to set up spelling reforms may have resulted from “missionary efforts, particularly in Asia and Africa” [Algeo 2001: 351], that tried to create alphabets which also allowed people from other societies to read the Bible in their native tongues.

However, the spelling reforms made during that time did not have a great impact on the official American spelling system since all efforts made so far were just plain proposals by single philologists which were not widely accepted. Furthermore, most efforts suggested different ideas about how to realise such a spelling reform, and so it was rather hard for people to decide which kind of spelling reform to accept and which not. Benn Pitman’s American Phonetic Alphabet, for example, suggested completely new symbols and spellings, whereas Benjamin Franklin’s Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling introduced only six new letters for the alphabet and gave new names to a couple of existing letters. Consequently, spelling reforms remained “more a historical curiosity than a detectable influence on American spelling” [Algeo 2001: 352] during the latter part of the 18th century.

2.3 The linguistic patriotism and the standardisation of American spelling

After the thirteen colonies in North America declared their independence in 1776, there was an upcoming mood of patriotism among the citizenz of the newly founded republic. Soon this wave of national awareness also affected language and it was clear that English should become the official national language of the New World since the English-speaking immigrants remained dominant in political as well as in cultural terms.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Spotlight on Standard American English and Standard British English
Spelling differences between the two standard varieties
Free University of Berlin  (Fachbereich Englisch)
Sociolinguistics and Varieties of English II
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
434 KB
Standard American English, Standard British English, American English, British English, Differences, Spelling, Varieties, Varieties of English
Quote paper
Master of Education Thomas Schachtebeck (Author), 2007, Spotlight on Standard American English and Standard British English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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