Ecumenical English: The Broad Church of Spelling Standardisation

Last updated 14 December 2018

Introduction

Debates over which variant of English spelling should be treated as an international standard, if there should be one, have raged across the Atlantic and Pacific ever since the United States broke away from the British Empire in the 18th century. I understand that the widespread use of English is an artefact of British colonisation and American cultural imperialism in the first place. I think the use of English to the exclusion of other languages is infuriating in and of itself. I think, though, that it is still valid to criticise some of the same dynamics occurring in an intra-lingual setting.

I support standardising on ‘ecumenical English spelling’ in contexts not specific to the United States. Ecumenical English standards represent a broad-church consensus on English usage that encompasses multiple countries. Though ‘Commonwealth English’ has been used to describe the usage patterns of most English-speaking countries outside the United States and some countries that were formerly in America’s sphere of influence like the Philippines and Liberia, the term is imprecise as it excludes the Republic of Ireland, which uses similar standards to the United Kingdom but is not part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Ecumenical English is relatively consistent on some classes of spellings, whether it’s the UK, Canada or Australia: -our in words like colour and honour, -re in centre and kilometre, two Ls in words like cancelled and traveller, C in offence, pretence and defence. Individuals may personally vary, but these are general patterns that differentiate Ecumenical standards from American ones. Please note that I am referring specifically to orthography. I don’t propose that accents or expressions should change; that would be culturally insensitive and unfair. Unlike accents and expressions, spelling is a visual, standardised representation of a language that benefits from consistency. It’s more analogous to units of measure and date and time formatting than it is to local expressions or accents. I don’t even think American usage standards are invalid. I believe, though, that they are not culturally neutral. No language or dialect is. To use a more blatant example, I don’t speak Portuguese and would be annoyed if I were forced to use a computer in Portuguese because ‘Portuguese is the standard’, but that’s different from saying Portuguese is an invalid language. I can understand some written Portuguese because I’ve studied other Romance languages, but my comfort level with the language would be lower than if I were to have it set to English, French, Spanish or German. Of course, two variants of the same language are more mutually intelligible than two related, but distinctly different, languages, but the point still stands: neutrality and acceptability are two different things and people should distinguish between them.

Only offering an American spellchecker is not a neutral act. Using only American spellings, date formats and vocabulary in a user interface designed by a large company is not a neutral act. Designing coding systems that don’t accept Ecumenical spelling variants is not a neutral act. Forcing people to code in English of any variety, rather than setting up systems by which commands in any number of languages could be processed by converting the code to English or an arbitrary programming language to be used only by the compiler itself, is not a neutral act. It may not be a deliberately exclusive or malicious act, but it’s certainly not neutral. In most cases, I don’t think that people mean to express cultural bias, but that doesn’t mean that the behaviour isn’t culturally biased.

I didn’t even say these non-neutral acts were bad. In contexts in which products or services are designed to be used for people all over the world, I fully believe these actions are unacceptable. I wouldn’t expect the Social Security Administration or some other US government agency to offer two English types. I’d rather see them have Spanish translations and plain-language explanations of benefits policy. In this case, we’re dealing with something culturally specific: an American government office. Neutrality isn’t required because this is a country- and culture-specific resource. An operating system or a web browser, however, is not the White House, the Smithsonian Museum or the New York Times. A programming language is not the Mississippi Department of Education. Companies like Apple, Adobe and Microsoft need to stop treating their user interfaces as cultural artefacts. The cultural friction between the user and the interface with which they interact should be relatively minimal.

What’s the problem with American standards?

It’s less that there's an intrinsic problem with them and more that they are culturally specific and should be seen as such. American usage standards are far from neutral. They were developed in the United States for the United States. In the early 19th century, Noah Webster created the first American dictionary, which included local terminology and proposed a new spelling system that would distinguish American writing from British writing, under the impression that ‘American’ would evolve into its own language. The culture-specificity of these reforms would be fine if people recognised that they were culture-specific. Some people will try to defend Webster’s changes by claiming he ‘cleaned up’ English spelling, or that he restored old-fashioned spellings, with the ridiculous insinuation that British usage is invalid. The reality is actually a bit more nuanced than that. His primary method for ‘Americanising’ words involved removing French-influenced spellings from the language. The irony here is that if it weren’t for the French, the United States wouldn’t be an independent country anyway. Why spite France to get back at the UK? Nobody else has seen fit to systematically and consistently drop U’s in words like colour and honour, reverse the R and E in centre or kilometre or adopt the other obvious American standards. Some countries have flirted with American standards, but most of them have never stuck permanently and the official standards are largely Ecumenical. The whole idea of the United States having its own special spelling system is silly. I delight in the varied forms spoken and written English take, but I find the idea of American spelling absurd for the same reason that I find this country’s obstinate refusal to use the metric system or write the date in a logical order absurd. It’s frankly kind of Trumpy. I agree with Matthew Engel in That’s the Way It Crumbles: Webster’s supposed reforms were more of an irritation than an improvement for the rest of the English-speaking world. To this day, American spellings cause confusion in other countries, especially when culturally insensitive software like MS Word attempts to ‘correct’ Ecumenical spellings to American ones. Despite its absurdity, however, it’s entrenched enough that we're stuck with it in US-specific contexts.

The most significant counterarguments I’ve seen rely on the size of the US population compared to those of other English-speaking countries and the apparent superiority of American spellings based on simplicity, etymological accuracy or logic. I don’t think either of these arguments holds up well upon further analysis. First, the US is a big country, but it’s still one country. Arguments that claim that the US should dictate the rules of English usage because it’s the largest native-English-speaking country are silly. For one, there are multiple large-population countries like India and Nigeria that largely use Ecumenical English in official communication. Many international and supranational organisations, like the United Nations, the OECD, the European Union and NATO, already standardise on forms of Ecumenical English.Also, if we wanted to make arguments based on population, why hasn’t every country adopted Chinese, Hindi or any of the other myriad languages spoken in India or China as its official language?

Secondly, there are some arguments that some American spellings look more like their Latin originals rather than the more recent French source from which many British spellings were derived, but that argument does not apply to loanwords from other languages like Greek. Furthermore, there is no justification for reversing R and E if the goal is to adhere to spellings drawn strictly from etymology; if Webster or other Americans were reforming strictly based on etymology, they would have left centre alone. Nor is there any justification for analyze, paralyze and similar spellings - the Z ended up there for completely arbitrary reasons. Succour, neighbour and armour all have root words that contained a U - in all of them, the O is the extra letter, not the U. The fact that the U went missing from succour, armour and neighbour reveals that the reforms were brute-force changes that often ignored etymology. The argument from consistency is also silly: if Webster felt the need to reverse letters when a silent E followed an R, then why not do it with similar words with a consonant other than R, like L? Why is it still bubble in both Ecumenical and American systems and not bubel? If Americans write defense, why is fence still spelled with a C? Fence is short for defence1. By Webster’s logic, it should be fense. The U may be dropped in mould and smoulder, but not in boulder and shoulder. Sholder is wrong everywhere. I can understand Americans wanting to stick to their standards because of cultural reasons, but defences based on etymology, pronunciation and logic are untenable. They just don’t hold up. Why not get rid of doubled letters altogether and write inteligent, spelings, acomodate and shiping? All English spelling standards are shambolic, inconsistent and often arbitrary, whether Ecumenical or American.

If American orthographical standards solved any of the problems with English spelling, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand would have adopted them permanently instead of rejecting them outright or moving back to ecumenical standards after flirting with Americanised spellings. Certainly the US date format would be more popular than it actually is if there were any logical reasoning for it. If you want to defend American usage standards, stick to cultural arguments.

None of this is to claim that individual Americans or American-taught people are deliberately trying to be exclusive or necessarily agree with the reforms themselves. It’s just second nature. Some people may not associate cultural contexts with the way words are written, since they process written language as a representation of sound, rather than as a visual representation of a concept that may be associated with a sound, but is also connected to culture and history. But the fact still remains that language and its aural and visual representations cannot be divorced from the contexts in which they develop. Look at the politics surrounding Bokmål and Nynorsk, or Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters.

When parochialism attacks!

I’ve also seen a weird bubble mentality amongst some Americans and non-Americans who exclusively or primarily American standards instead of Ecumenical ones. It’s especially irritating when the people doing it are from a country or region that primarily uses Ecumenical standards. I think it’s inadvertent, not deliberate, in most cases, but it is still there. In Americans themselves it seems more accidental, but when people consciously choose American standards, it seems to invite a certain kind of closed-ended, Trumpy thinking about English usage, since they wrongly equate loudness with universality; for example, I remember coming across a British designer who contorted himself to spell like an American and wouldn’t even tag items with the British spelling, as though his own country didn't exist. That’s frankly terrifying. That’s the kind of behaviour I expect from an American who literally doesn’t know better through no fault of their own.

I don’t think that they deliberately intend to be ignorant, but it’s a consequence of not feeling a tension between one’s own way of doing things and an extremely dominant culture’s way of doing things. Feeling a tension between a dominant point of view and one’s own can lead to a greater awareness of precisely how variable people’s experiences can be, whether that applies to language, neurotype, cultural identity, race or any other aspect of human existence. If you don’t feel it, you can’t notice it unless it’s pointed out to you. This attitude seems to be very common amongst some programmers and software developers, though it isn’t universal. These people don’t see the inherent absurdity of using an American flag to represent the English language. When they think of English standards, they think only of American ones. They’ll never include the Ecumenical spelling as a search option. They’re the kind of people who forget that Ecumenical English standards even exist. They’re the ones who think a US spellchecker is adequate for all English-speakers. They’re the ones who brush off the entire existence of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Nigeria, New Zealand, India, Ireland, South Africa and every other country that uses Ecumenical English standards, either entirely or in part. These people either don’t notice or care that the English-speaking world extends beyond the United States, and they assume that because they don’t care or notice, other people won’t care or notice. I get a very visceral, negative reaction to this kind of behaviour, even though I realise that in many cases it’s inadvertent. What people don’t notice, they can’t fix.

Again, this kind of behaviour doesn’t invalidate American usage patterns in and of themselves. It is the attitude and behaviour I take issue with. Objecting to unfair or imbalanced behaviour is not the same thing as claiming that the dialect that benefits from this imbalance is intrinsically unacceptable or objecting to the existence of the dialect itself.

Why can’t we just change English spelling standards to a universal, phonetic system?

Because English-speakers’ accents vary quite a bit, even within a specific country. Most English people don’t pronounce Rs that come before a consonant sound or a pause in speech, but that’s not universal; people from the West Country may pronounce an R regardless of where it appears in a sentence as an American, Canadian, Scottish or Irish person would. Vowel sounds vary wildly, both within and between different English dialects. How would we create a system that works well for people from London, Atlanta, Dallas, Leeds, Sydney, Auckland, Bangalore, Manila, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Manchester? Every region would probably end up creating its own standards, re-creating the same problem we had to deal with in the first place, with the additional frustration of being unable to read documents written in a different dialect. If English were spoken in only one or two nearby countries with similar dialects and accents, then this proposal would make sense. It wouldn’t even make sense for England on its own, much less the rest of the UK or any other country.

Proposals

I suggest that non-American organisations and individuals should reject, or continue to reject, all American standards that the rest of the English-speaking world has rejected in non-US-specific contexts if you feel the tension and are able to do it. (In the case of units of measurement, it’s the rest of the goddamn planet, not just English-speakers.) Americans, too, may be able to do this if they want, though the learning curve will be much steeper because their habits will be formed when they are much younger. I started using Ecumenical spellings almost exclusively in personal writing in 2005.

  1. The Oxford Dictionary of English, via the MacOS dictionary. ↩︎