By CRAIG ALAN VOLKER
English spelling can be very confusing and it is often difficult to remember just how to spell words. What can make it even more confusing is that sometimes we see certain words spelled one in some books or websites and in another way elsewhere. How are we supposed to know, for example, if we should write “colour” or “color”?
To answer this question, we need to look at both the history of the English language and the many nations that use it, and at some ways that the social and political ecology of English is different from many other languages.
Most languages are closely identified with one group of people and place. Engan, for example, is the language of the Engan people, centred in Enga Province, and Chinese is the language of the Chinese people, centred in China itself.
English, however, has become a language that is no longer “owned” by one group of people. English has its origins in England, of course, but today the largest group of native English speakers is in the United States, where only a minority of people are descendants of English immigrants. The largest number of speakers is in India, most of whom speak it as a second, not home, language, and almost none of whom are of English descent.
English has become a world language, used daily more by people for whom, as for Indians and Papua New Guineans, it is not their first language than for people such as Americans and Australians for whom it their native language.
There are other languages such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese, that have also spread around the world because of colonialism. But unlike English, these still tend to be closely identified with the country where the language originated.
More importantly, they have international academies that regulate the accepted grammar, spelling, and vocabulary of the languages.
English has nothing like this. There is no national language institute in any country that regulates the language and no international body that controls how the language is used. The closest that English has to any kind of regulating authority are important dictionaries, such as the Oxford University Dictionary, Websters Dictionary, or the Macquarie Dictionary, but these are nationally based and are produced by private companies.
Unlike the international or national language academies of languages such as Spanish, French, and Indonesian, these dictionaries have absolutely no legal authority and, in fact, are often in competition with one another.
One main reason that English is like this is because it became a world language because of the colonial expansion of two separate powerful countries, Great Britain and the United States. Each views itself as a cultural centre and sees the English language as something belonging to it.
This separation began in the 1700s, when the United States became independent from Great Britain after a bitter revolutionary war.
The new country wanted to show its independence by getting rid of as much as possible that connected them with their former colonial master.
One American scholar, Noah Webster, thought this would be a good time to tidy up English spelling, which has many illogical spellings. In a dictionary of what he called “the American language”, he wrote some words without unnecessary letters, such as the “u” in “colour” and wrote other words according to how they were pronounced, such as “center” instead of “centre”.
His dictionary and the textbooks based on it were used throughout the United States for many years and the spellings they introduced became the commonly used standard in the United States.
Eventually these American spellings became the more accepted spellings not only in the United States and its colonies (such as the Philippines), but in those countries where American influence is especially strong such as Latin America and East Asia.
In the British Empire (today the Commonwealth of Nations), the British spellings of the British colonial masters remained the norm. This is why today in the Pacific, Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji usually use British spellings (“colour”, “centre”, and “tyre”) while the northern Pacific countries (such as Micronesia and the Philippines) use American spellings (“color”, “center”, and “tire”).
Because Papua New Guinea was colonised by Australia, which in turn had been colonised by Great Britain, British spellings were set down as “correct” by the Department of Education in the colonial era. Today there are PNG dictionaries that use British spellings, so most publications in the country, such as this newspaper, use these spellings as well.
At the same time, PNG receives many books and much internet content from the United States and East Asia, usually with American spellings. Most notably, most computers come equipped with spellcheck programs using American, not British or Australian, spellings.
Each individual ends up choosing which spelling to use, with most Papua New Guineans following the British/Australian spellings they learned at school.
It is important to remember that while some teachers in Britain say American spellings and vocabulary are “wrong”, just as their American counterparts say British spellings and vocabulary are “foreign”, in reality neither system is more or less correct than the other.
Each is the product of divergent histories of the English language and the people that use it. The fact that the English language today belongs to no one people and to no one nation is its greatest strength. The diversity of spellings reflects this.
- Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.