Find out why Noah Webster simplified American spelling—and what differences weren’t his idea.
Have you ever wondered why the British spell “color” with a “u” and Americans don’t? Or why the British spell “theater” with an “re” at the end and Americans spell it with an “er” at the end? We all know that these spelling differences exist, but not everyone knows why they exist. Today, we’re going to find out!
It turns out that Noah Webster of Webster’s dictionary fame is behind many, but not all, of the spelling differences between British and American English, and his reasons for making the changes were as much political and philosophical as linguistic. I was inspired to do this podcast by a book I just finished, called "The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture" by Joshua Kendall. I know many of you reading are not Americans, but I hope you will indulge me and end up finding this story as interesting as I do.
Noah Webster lived smack in the middle of the time when Americans were still trying to form a country and figure out who they were. To give you some perspective, the United States Constitution was ratified between the time Webster published his first spelling book and when he started working on his famous dictionary.
Americans were eager to break with Britain as fully as possible and weren’t even sure that English should be the primary language. Nearly 10% of the population spoke German, so some people suggested German should be our language. Others proposed Hebrew, and others thought we should call our language Columbian.
'Zee' Versus 'Zed'
Noah Webster's influence is why Americans call the final letter 'zee' instead of 'zed.'
Webster undertook his first big project—an American spelling book to replace the British book schools were using then—in part, to settle the matter and convince people that our language should be English, but American English. It was in this book that he took small steps to begin creating American spellings. It was also in the speller that he taught Americans to pronounce the name of the final letter of the alphabet as “zee” instead of “zed” as the British do.
Political Rationale for Spelling Reform
Webster is best known now as the dictionary writer, but in his time he was involved in politics and knew George Washington and Benjamin Franklin quite well. He regularly wrote political essays, letters, and tracts; and early in his career, he felt that an American language was necessary to hold the country together. In his lectures, he criticized Americans for studying Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and German, but neglecting English; and he wrote, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics—as famous for arts as for arms.”
The Compendious Dictionary: 'Color' Versus 'Colour' and More
Before he wrote his big dictionary, he wrote a smaller book titled the Compendious Dictionary, and it was in this work that he really got rolling on spelling reform. For example,
He dropped the “u” from “colour,” “honour,” and “a few words of that class” as he called them in his introduction.
He changed “theatre” (“re”) to “theater”(“er”).
He substituted an “s” for the “c” in “defence,” “offence,” and “pretence.”
He dropped the second “l” in words such as “travelled” and “cancelled.”
He changed the “s” to “z” in a few words such as “patronise.”
He also included changes that had already been suggested by others such as omitting the “k” from the end of “magic” and “logic” and spelling “risk” with a “k” instead of a “que” at the end.
Next: What Was Webster Thinking?