How Crazy is English!!! – American Spelling and Noah Webster

This is part of an occasional series showcasing the wacky crazy and lovable world of the English language.

I’m a native English speaker. I also have a degree in English, and I have a teaching certification in English and English as a Second or Other Language. I also teach English pronunciation. To make things worse, I read a lot – in English. English is kind of my jam (something I enjoy a lot).

I also have to laugh at the crazy things about English that I “know” as a teacher/speaker/reader/etc., but that I forget about until they’re right in my face (made very obvious).

As most English language learners find out, there are a lot of small differences between American English and British English, especially in pronunciation and spelling. According to some linguists, Americans pronounce English in a way that’s closer to the way it was pronounced in England in the 1600-1700s (Is American English Older than British English?). That makes sense, since that when people from England came to what is now the US, and brought the language with them.

The differences in spelling, however, came from a different source.

Noah Webster was an educator, author, and published the first dictionary of American English, An American Dictionary of the English Language, back in 1828. Before that, he wrote textbooks that were used in American schools for more than 80 years. In those textbooks, words like colour were changed to color, gaol to jail, centre to center, etc. As five generations of American children learned from these books, these spelling became widespread, and were formalized in the dictionaries Webster wrote. In fact, one of the most respected dictionaries of American English still bear his name, as well as the name of the family that bought the rights to the dictionary when he died, Merriam (Merriam-Webster – About Us – Noah Webster and America’s First Dictionary).

However, there were several new spellings of words that Webster proposed that were…let’s just say…rejected by the general population. Here are some of the most amusing:

     Tho – though

     Cloke — cloak

     Sley — sleigh

     Soop — soup

     Neer — near

     Stile — style 

     Masheen — machine

     Grotesk — grotesque

     Tung — tongue 

     Wimmin — women

     Greef — grief

     Ake — ache

     Dawter — daughter

     Iland — island

     Porpess — porpoise

     Spunge — sponge

English can be crazy, but learning how to pronounce it doesn’t have to be!
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