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A reporter from the Daily Mail got in touch with me last Monday to canvass my views on how to spell yogurt.

This turned out to be a follow-up to a letter in the current issue of The Grocer, the UK magazine for food and drink retailers. The letter came from Clare Cheney, the director general of the Provision Trade Federation, the trade body that represents food companies in Britain, including importers. She suggested The Grocer should bring itself up to date by leaving the h out, since its manufacturers have now standardised on yogurt.

Standardisation among manufacturers is not in fact quite complete yet: Prince Charles’s firm prefers the older spelling.

At this point Americans may be puzzled, as they have for more than a century spelled the word without an h and probably regard the spelling yoghurt as a curious Britishism, let alone yoghourt, another once-common form. Both were based on the Turkish word they come from. This is written as yoğurt in modern Turkish, with the ğ marking a guttural consonant that doesn’t exist in English. This was transliterated as gh when it appeared in English in the early seventeenth century. Spellings with the h were still usual when the product began to appear widely in Britain in the 1960s. The Times wrote in April 1967: “Fruity yoghourt is enjoying a market boom unparalleled by any other dairy product in existence.” Countries in the Commonwealth still seem to prefer the form with the h, though Canadians have the hybrid yogourt, presumably under the influence of French.

The evidence from dictionaries, newspapers and books is that the spelling yogurt has become the most common form in the UK but that yoghurt is also still very much around (yoghourt is now rare). Interestingly, even The Grocer uses yogurt a lot of the time — a search of its Web site found 1376 examples of yogurt as against 678 of yoghurt (none of yoghourt).

Following Ms Cheney’s letter, Food Manufacture, another magazine, said it was going to standardise on yogurt. It would seem that yoghurt is threatened in its homeland.

The Daily Mail, I suspect, was hoping I would denounce the creeping insidious influence of American English and argue that this was another example of the individuality of our native tongue being lost. Good heavens, no. I suggested, on the basis of a hunch rather than firm evidence, that the change might not have been through American influence at all, but an example of “spell-as-you-speak” working on an unfamiliar word, which was presumably how Americans came by their spelling.

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Page created 30 May 2009