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UK row as kids are told to adopt incorrect but 'international' spelling
November 26, 2000 4:50 PM   Subscribe

UK row as kids are told to adopt incorrect but 'international' spelling A row has broken out in the UK as the organisation in charge of school examinations told pupils to drop traditional spelling of scientific words in favour of Americanised (wrong) ones.
Surely Sulphur comes from a Greek word which involves the letter phi (not fi) and is therefore the correct spelling...
posted by nico (30 comments total)

Hey nico, you misspelled favor in your post...

posted by mathowie at 4:58 PM on November 26, 2000

Well, the spelling "sulfur" was adopted by the IUPAC: they also prefer "caesium" and "aluminium". I'm more annoyed by the desire to use "fetus" for "foetus".
posted by holgate at 5:15 PM on November 26, 2000

What I think you'll find in nearly every case where the American spelling differs from the UK spelling, that the American spelling is shorter and doesn't rely as heavily on obsolete phonemic interpretations of letters. For instance "plow" for "plough", "sulfur" for "sulphur". Or unnecessary letters will be left out; the "u" in "colour" or "favour" is silent; why bother with it?

One advantage of "sulfur" over "sulphur" is for new readers and those unfamiliar with the language (after all, English is a second language for the majority of its speakers) is that it uses familiar pronunciations. ("ph" is rare, 'f" is common.) But in actual practice, you'll find "sulfate" and "sulphate" used interchangeably in technical documentation here in the States. That one isn't really established.

Equally, in some cases where pronunciations are different, the American pronunciation will nearly always involve fewer syllables, e.g. "aluminum" (4 syllables) versus "aluminium" (5 syllables). That kind of streamlining is a good thing; it's always been the trend over time and is part of the reason why a lot of our words now have spellings which bear little resemblance to their current pronunciations.

It is a linquistic fact of life that a language trends towards the more efficient. It's always been like that. The pronunciations of words will change over time to be easier to say and take less time. (Indeed, this is one of the things linguists use when trying to date material or trying to determine whether languages are related. And there are certain fairly standard transitions that they find over and over again caused by the fact that the later version is easier to say.)

Languages are living entities; you can't freeze them, because the people who speak them won't cooperate. New words or new meanings for old words are introduced, old words fall out of usage, pronunciations change; it's the nature of the beast.

To try to stop that is like trying to hold back the tide.

Nico, you remind me of the futile French attempt to try to outlaw "Franglais". That won't work, either. Linguistic "borrowing" is also a fact of life. English is does it constantly, boldly and without apology. No English speaker worries about *that*, nor should they.

15 years ago, no less than the chief editor of the OED declared that the center of the English language had shifted to the US. Face it, because you won't change it.

By the way, my copy of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics claims to be fully compliant with IUPAC standards, and it uses "aluminum" and "cesium". It's dated 1967; maybe things have changed, Holgate, but I don't think so. I think you're just mistaken.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:04 PM on November 26, 2000

Graceful in cultural victory as always, I see.
posted by cardboard at 7:45 PM on November 26, 2000

Ha. That's the first time I've seen American English's tendancy to break it's own rules used as a plus in the learning experience (-:

Here's a cute article from a few years ago on Euro English.

posted by alan at 7:48 PM on November 26, 2000

Foo . . . the most flexible language always wins. The language that ignores it's own rules, steals words from other tongues, and generally has sex with everyone it can, will prevail.

That may or may not be English (in whatever form). But static languages die, because they fail to adapt.

Rules, smoolz.
posted by aramaic at 8:12 PM on November 26, 2000

That article about Euro English was stolen from an article called Meihem in ce klasrum, which does it far better.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:33 PM on November 26, 2000

Two nations, divided by a common language ...
posted by dhartung at 10:09 PM on November 26, 2000

Steven: you forget that most American variant spellings (many of which were used by that old patriot Sam: Johnson) aren't the product of a graceful evolution towards the efficient, but an explicit political effort by Noah Webster to distinguish the language of the new nation from that of the former colonial masters. (And it would have been much more radical had he had his way, the old bugger.)

Oh, and the IUPAC definitions are specified here: I'm afraid to say that your chemistry book is obsolete.

And "aluminium" (allahminyum) is far easier to say than "aluminum" (ah-loo-min-um) because all the vowels are at the front of the mouth. That's linguistic efficiency at work: the kind of transformation that got "bird" from "brid" and "une orange" from "una naraja". Spelling has precious little to do with it.

In short, efficiency my arse. It's the linguistic equivalent of gunboat diplomacy, fuelled by the dreadnought that is the MS Word spellchecker.
posted by holgate at 10:33 PM on November 26, 2000

I am surprised, Steven, that you didn't mention that:

1. US spelling is in many cases older than the British spelling. "Color" for example. Some of these spellings were established before English was standardised.

2. It's the spelling used by Founding Fathers, if its good enough for the Constitution, well, it must be the fairest and best designed to maximise human happiness. ;-j

The reality is that US spelling is not more streamlined or easier. It's certainly not more consistent or efficient. It's not easier for a foreigner to learn because it is riddled with just as many strange rules as British spelling. Dropping "unnecessary" vowels has basically no effect on making English spelling easier. American spelling is biased towards American pronunciation. Unfortunately, I pronounce "colour", kuller not kullor. Neither spelling works perfectly.

Over here in Oz, we use a combination of US and British spelling with a bias toward the British spelling. This is changing as Microsoft Word has its wicked way with the Australian dialect (Bill Gates has already decided that Australians will use US spelling by default).

But the final straw is Metafilter itself.

mathowie, I'm afraid that your "Spell Check" utility is yet another weapon in the evil armoury of Globalization [sic]. Down with your rotten Yanqui Cultural Imperialism!!!

P.S. Whenevver I hear the word "aluminum" instead of "aluminium", I can't help thinking of Homer Simpson saying the word "nuculer" instead of "nuclear". It always makes me laugh out loud. Sorry. Hey, why not "uranum" instead of "uranium"? ha ha ha

posted by lagado at 10:41 PM on November 26, 2000

Beat me to the post holgate

It's the linguistic equivalent of gunboat diplomacy, fuelled by the dreadnought that is the MS Word spellchecker

what a writer!

posted by lagado at 10:43 PM on November 26, 2000

Why, thank you.

And while I'm ranting: "fetus". Not "feetus", or "featus", which would have some phonetic claim, but "fetus", as in "fetch" and "fettle". Where's the streamlining there? "Plow" as in "blow", "slow", "flow" and "glow"? Yeah, right.

Really, given that the vast majority of anglophones seem able to cope with a different set of inconsistencies -- indeed, the world's largest democracy embraces an English that is perhaps more quirkily British than the mother country's -- it's about time that the USA developed a touch of humility towards its funny little dialect.
posted by holgate at 11:16 PM on November 26, 2000

In India there are 3 separate boards that govern the education till the 10th grade.

SSC: Which is run by the state govt. They teach average English.

ICSE: Which is nationalised. They teach Queens English

CBSC: Like ICSE, but the junior college years (11th and 12th) are included. They also teach Queens English.

I passed the ICSE. Yet these days I prefer to mix my spellings, e.g: I use -ize at times but I prefer to spell favour with the u.

I do prefer the BBC accent over the Royal family's accent.

I think the Canadians and the Indians have got it right, stick to basic Queens English, but don't make it too strict.
posted by riffola at 11:36 PM on November 26, 2000

And in a more concilatory tone, I'll point to this highly informative article from the Atlantic Monthly on the status of English as a world language. What interested me, in particular, was that the country with the third highest number of English-speakers (behind the USA and UK) is Nigeria, Africa's most populous country.
posted by holgate at 11:37 PM on November 26, 2000

riffola: -ize is used by the OED now in most cases. There's a useful (if somewhat, um, detailed) explanation of Oxford practice in the ox.FAQ.

(Though I tend to stick to -ise simply through force of habit.)
posted by holgate at 11:40 PM on November 26, 2000

In chemistry, the problem isn't just spelling, unfortunately. Americans and Brits pronounce some things differently that are even spelled alike. Triethylamine, for instance, is "try-ETH-uhl uh-MEEN" in American English and "TRY-eth-ILE-uh-meen" in British English.

And don't believe everything IUPAC tells you. They'd have us believe ethylene should be called "ethene". Ptttthp.
posted by shylock at 11:43 PM on November 26, 2000

And here was me thinking it was because you Americans were lazy and couldn't be bothered typing all those extra letters... ;-)

Seriously though, the tend to 'American' spelling is seen in this light by some...dumbing down, simplifying. Is that a bad thing? Or is it a reaction to the Americanisation (-ization?) of the world...which is a different argument.
posted by snowgoon at 12:27 AM on November 27, 2000

Pardon my asking, but if you wanted a spell checker that recognizes (recognises?) your various non American spellings why don't you use an Australian or British spellchecker?
posted by norm at 7:31 AM on November 27, 2000

re: spellcheckers. Often, schools and colleges will install MS Office across the network, and forget to load the localised spellchecker: from experience, US English is the default, no matter what your local settings are for Windows. (Other annoyances with Windows: the "Favorites" menu, and the "Network Neigborhood" -- you can't even properly rename it to "Neighbourhood" because the word doesn't fit under the icon.)

In other cases, you'll simply come across software that isn't localised at all. It was particularly annoying when Apple dropped its British English version of MacOS, not just for the spellings, but the Apple-esque attention to cultural details: it was never "Trash" on the desktop, but a "Wastebasket".
posted by holgate at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2000

One thing no one has talked about is differences in accent and pronunciation.

American English and British English have moved apart from one another for a reason. Partly this is because of enforced changes by people proposing to rationalise the language (in the US), partly this is because of the natural tendency towards simplification, but there are other reasons too.

American accents tend to come from different parts of the mouth than British ones. People speak from a different area and thus find certain words easier to pronounce than others. Words that are hard to pronounce/say will be simplified. For example - the British tend to put stresses on the first and third syllables of a word, Americans on the second - Aluminium is the prime example here. Try saying that word in full with the stress on the second syllable and you're screwed. Colour and color is another example - te way the American voice says the word loses the near dipthong of the second syllable, which you can just detect in the british "eur" sound.

My personal feeling is that a form of international English is a good thing - a kind of trans-national spelling that adopts not the most well-known, but the one that fits the most speaking patterns of English-speakers internationally.

But all of this, I think, should be secondary in the scientific and medical disciplines to maintaining the transliteration from Greek and Latin which mean that an expert can tell immediately if a word has cephalos in it that it refers to HEAD (as in encephalopathy or encephalograph). You could "rationalise" the spelling, but it would cease to reflect its etymological roots as a DESCRIPTIVE aggregate of greek words with a specific meaning.

What I'm scared of is a loss of regional difference as changes in national spellings result in radical accentation and pronunciation changes world-wide.
posted by barbelith at 9:09 AM on November 27, 2000

I'd like to add that this agreement does also result in changes to the American spellings of several words as well -
"In 1990 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry had recommended that the spelling of sulfur would use "f" instead of "ph" - and the spellings aluminium and caesium were recommended instead of aluminum and cesium, as used in the United States. "
posted by barbelith at 9:18 AM on November 27, 2000

holgate, those inconsistencies wouldn't be around if Webster's spellings were adopted more completely. So "snow" would instead be "sno", and likewise with other words that have that (American) phoneme.
posted by kidsplateusa at 9:42 AM on November 27, 2000

There's a lot more than one "American accent". When I first got out of college and started working (in Portland Oregon, where we speak with what is very near to a California accent) I was sent on a business trip to New Orleans.

I sat down in a restaurant, and a waitress came up to me and said something. I asked her to repeat it, and she said something again. I never did figure it out, but I knew I was supposed to order and proceeded to do so. Interestingly, she had no difficulty understanding me. But that's because my accent is very near to what TV broadcasters use; she was used to it.

The spelling used in every language begins at least partially phonetic. Surprisingly, this turns out to be true even for Chinese. However, the written form was standardized more than 2000 years ago and the pronounced form of the language(s) has changed so much since then, that most of the words are no longer phonetic. Nonetheless they began that way. The problem is that as time goes on, accents change and also they vary geographically, Chinese being the extreme case since there are now several Chinese languages. They truly are separate despite all using the same written form.

Once this was realized, it was of major help to historical linguists attempting to read ancient texts. One example is cuneiform; they would run into cases where the same sequence of symbols would appear but with minor changes. Finally they realized that the scribes didn't have standardized spelling and that each scribe was writing down a phonetic representation of how he himself pronounced the word. Using those cases, it permitted them to identify letters whose pronunciations were similar to each other, and it was a major help in deciphering the written language, which they can now read. (If you want to learn more about this, get The Codebreakers and read the chapter titled "Ancestral Voices".)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:20 AM on November 27, 2000

A more recent case, Steven, was in the Middle English period, where you have competing spellings reflecting significant differences in dialect and accent: there's the famous case mentioned by Caxton of the southern Englisher going north, and asking for "eggs". "I'm sorry," he was told, "I speak no French." (The northern plural was "eyren".) Print did a lot to standardise English spelling around the London dialect.

I'm with barbelith: there's definitely room for standardisation when it comes to scientific and technical language. And that extends beyond mere spelling: anyone remember the debate over whether the conversion between metric and imperial units caused the Mars lander to crash? But I really don't see why that should extend to the school level: 14-year-olds aren't reading and writing for worldwide scientific journals, and should they need to do so in later life, they can pick up the internationally-specified terms along with the rest of their professional vocabulary.
posted by holgate at 11:43 AM on November 27, 2000

When people of any age (including elementary school children) learn scientific practice and terminology, they should probably be introduced and encouraged to use the internationally accepted spellings.
posted by cCranium at 1:28 PM on November 27, 2000

I don't see why the etymological roots of a technical word should be any more important to its spelling than to its pronunciation--and it's not like anyone thinks we should start pronouncing cesium with a hard "k" sound or valium with an initial "w" sound. Science doesn't really need to appeal to classical antiquity for legitimacy anymore.
posted by shylock at 11:53 PM on November 27, 2000

However science does ROUGHLY conform to a system of classification in latin and greek that makes it comprehensible AS a system to someone trained to do so. If you start changing the spellings away from an etymologically correct one, then that incredible luxury begins to dissipate. That's all I'm saying...
posted by barbelith at 1:59 AM on November 28, 2000

Science doesn't really need to appeal to classical antiquity for legitimacy anymore.

Straw man, shylock: caesium and most of the other elements were named at a point when classical Latin pronunciation (rather than etymology) had been replaced by church Latin. (Do you really think that Shakespeare wrote the equivalent of "I come not to praise Kai-sar, but to bury him"?)

I'm reminded of Brian Friel's Translations, which takes as its subject the systematic rechristening of Irish place names by the British, and the cultural loss wreaked by such an imposition. Even scientific language has its blurry origins in metaphor and coinage, though most modern practitioners wouldn't care to admit it.
posted by holgate at 6:56 AM on November 28, 2000

Modern chemical nomenclature started to develop around the turn of the 19th century, with Lavoisier and his ilk. By this time the lingua franca of the educated elite in Europe was academic, rather than church, Latin.

Also, it's important to point out that much of the etymology of scientific terminology is arbitrary. It's not important to know that the name of formic acid is derived from "formis" (ant); it is important to recognize that the modifier "form-" in formic, formate, formamide, formyl, chloroformate, etc., refers to a common structural element in these compounds. So as long as scientifically relevant cognates remain recognizable as such, I don't see why it's important to revert to archaic spellings for the sake of etymological correctness. (You don't want to have to start calling them "alcaligne" batteries, do you?)

Scientific language is like any other aspect of language--it changes over time, and it will resist exogenous attempts to force it into some artificial semblance of systematicity.
posted by shylock at 6:30 PM on November 28, 2000

Engineering language is even worse, because engineers are low creatures with low senses of humor (says the 25-year career engineer).

A lot of our technical terms began very whimsically, and some have obscene origins. The "joy stick" gets its name from its original use: the steering mechanism for early airplanes, which stuck straight up between the pilot's legs, near his crotch. Guess what it refers to?

"Mouse" is certainly not obscene, but it's definitely whimsical.

And a lot of our technical terms are nonsense words because they began as acronyms. In some cases the acronym phrases are deliberately whimsical. (No example springs immediately to mind, but I know some such exist.)

But the real problem is simply that it's changing so fast.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:40 PM on November 28, 2000

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