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Americans will perhaps class this spelling as another example of the olde-worlde quaintness of British life, since they have for the better part of two centuries been used to sulfur rather than sulphur. In this, they are now joined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in Britain, who sent advice last week to head teachers that 14-year-olds taking school tests in science should adopt what was described as “internationally standardised” versions of this and other words, like fetus.

A number of British newspaper commentators and teachers expressed opinions on this change, with varying degrees of apoplexy, that were partly based on a jingoistic feeling that, well, we invented the damn language, why should we have to conform to the way other people want to spell it? The phrase “American cultural imperialism” was also used. The School Standards Minister, Estelle Morris, told the QCA to think again (they don’t have to and they’re not going to: they’re an independent agency). The Conservative opposition education secretary, Theresa May, said the ruling was ridiculous and would only confuse teachers and pupils. All this despite the fact that the QCA had emphasised that “British English spelling should not be penalised”.

Nobody is suggesting British people change these spellings for all purposes, only when using them in scientific contexts. The Royal Society of Chemistry rushed out a press release the next day to support the QCA, pointing out that standardisation is especially important for ease of communication (like looking things up in databases, for example, where variant versions of common terms are a bugbear). The Society added that standard chemical nomenclature already specifies the f forms of words like sulfur following agreement by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in 1990.

The difference in spelling, and the current controversy resulting from it, must be laid at the feet of the late Noah Webster, a humourless and deeply religious schoolmaster cum failed lawyer who, after 15 years’ work, published his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. One cannot imagine an individual less well suited to the creation of a dictionary; he knew very little of other languages, his ideas about etymology were based more on religion and wishful thinking than historical fact (he thought all languages derived from ancient Chaldee), and he had this bee in his bonnet about simplifying the language by removing unnecessary letters from words.

His most influential book was not the Dictionary, but the earlier American Spelling Book, which went through about three hundred editions during his lifetime and after. This was very conventional by the standards of his day. It was only later that he began to advocate spelling reform, especially in a piece that had the splendid title An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation, published in 1789.

His aim was to remove all extraneous letters from words and he put forward a whole range of suggestions to this end. His aim was also political: he wanted to make American orthography distinctive and through this to help weld the disparate 13 founding colonies into a nation. By 1806, though, when he published his first dictionary, he had backtracked on the more outlandish of his ideas, saying “it would be useless to attempt any change, even if practicable, in those anomalies which form whole classes of words, and in which, change would rather perplex than ease the learner” (still a strong argument against spelling reform).

Because of his spelling revisions in the 1828 dictionary, Americans now write color, jewelry, theater and aluminum, as well as sulfur. Had it not been for the conservatism of his readers and publisher — and a “dictionary war” with a rival — that forced him to modify his views, Americans would also now have tuf (for tough), groop (for group) and tung (for tongue) among many others.

The deciding factor in modern standardisation, of course, is the American influence on the language world-wide, and especially on the vocabulary of the technical world. This has been considerable, and is the basis for the recommendations of IUPAC and the QCA. The majority of English writers world-wide already spell the word sulfur; that it looks odd and suspicious to some British speakers is as much an indication of parochialism as patriotism.

Interestingly, the IUPAC also said that aluminium should be so spelled — one for Britain, it might seem, except that what IUPAC was actually doing was bringing that spelling into line with the other 55 elements whose names end in -ium.

The Royal Society of Chemistry tried to make the point that “in 18th and 19th century Britain it was commonplace for sulfur to be spelt with either an ‘f’ or ‘ph’ ”. In this, they take their case too far, since the Oxford English Dictionary entry shows that the word has had ph in the middle ever since spelling settled down about 1600. Except in the US after Noah Webster, of course, and now internationally. And that’s official.

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Page created 09 Dec 2000