A single version of English

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was an internationally-recognised standard for written English? If people saw the word color (or indeed colour) and didn’t recoil. If there was a widely acknowledged view as to whether The meeting Thursday or The meeting on Thursday was acceptable.

I’m not asking us to can our respective versions of English—British, American, Australian, Canadian etc. I’m instead suggesting that a new version of English is created that would, over time, supersede our respective versions, taking the loveliness from each and consolidating it into a single set of rules that people can abide by in certain media, predominantly the web at first.

And I’m not suggesting that any one of our beautiful set of idiosyncrasies overrules those of the other countries’. There are some beautiful American constructs; and some equally beautiful British ones. I’m sure the same is true of the other variants, although I’m less familiar with these.

To achieve the goal, I’m proposing we first brainstorm the inconsistencies. And then we bring together five leading literary luminaries representing each of the English variants to agree on which version is preferable, leaving aside their local bias.

The whole process would strengthen the language and bring closer the English-speaking world.


Posted by Dan, 21 November, 2009 under Grammar | Thoughts


  • I must admit, my initial response was to recoil in horror at the suggestion, but then the pragmatist in me wagged its metaphorical finger and admonished me for being so irrational.

    Of course, it makes perfect sense to have a standard written English which does away with all the inconsistencies between the UK and the US. It would certainly reduce misunderstanding and also prevent thousands of people trawling through the Help menus of whatever version of Windows they’re running in order in an effort to stop their machines automatically changing “realised” for “realized” (as mine annoyingly just did).

    But on the other hand, English spelling makes no sense in the first place, which is perhaps precisely why we should keep it exactly as it is and not normalise it. There is the much-quoted fact that there are many ways to pronounce the combination “ou” (as in cough, rough, plough, through etc.) which has arisen as a consequence of the enormously diverse origins of the English language.

    In modernist Britain phoneticists like George Bernard Shaw clamoured for phonetic spelling to be the norm, promoting an alphabet of 48 letters with each representing a singular sound. If they’d been successful, we’d be living in a world in which “cough” was spelled “cof”, (which ironically isn’t too different from the strange language of texting adolescents). Call me a dinosaur, but I don’t think I’d like that very much…

    I think we should revel in the differences in English, bloody annoying though they are. Also, no matter how careful you were to avoid ‘taking sides’, such is the scrutiny a single solution would be under that there would be a consensus on which nation (and let’s face it, it’s either Limeys or Yanks) had emerged victorious. Language, no matter how subtle the differences, is inextricably linked to national pride.

    I know the suggestion was for a sensible solution that would be of (for the most part) commercial benefit, but I happen to like the difficult nonsensical nuances of English around the world, and for me, art wins over business every time. So after all that I think the reactionary element in me has beaten the pragmatist into submission: I’d rather put up with the peculiarities of stateside spellings (and would encourage them to put up with mine). To adopt a universal standard for written English just wouldn’t be cricket. Or indeed baseball.

    Posted by Steve Collier, 29 November, 2009, 10:51pm

  • I like the idea, Dan, and I am a big fan of unity and co-operation across the English speaking world. (I found myself today having to choose between my two countries for next week’s World Cup match. My choice of spelling came up as evidence of my Britishness… It’s incredible how much pride we can invest in our language!)

    Two thoughts though:
    1) One of the things I love about English (in contrast with, say, French) is how organically it evolves. It would be a shame to limit its future growth by prescribing set spellings (and possibly therefore a set vocabulary).

    2) I imagine this will happen anyway. In the same way that accents are slowly converging thanks to mass media (particularly television and film), I think that exposure to trans-Atlantic spellings (emails, blogs, news media) will feed into our instinctive drive for conformity and standardisation. I would bet this will take at least a few generations, but in the end I think spellings will settle into a common canon.

    If memory serves, this happened with English as mass printing allowed words to be widely distributed. Before, I believe, most words (including names) were spelled phonetically. One doesn’t have to look too far in my family’s history to find “Beamans”.

    Having said all that, I choose my spellings by my readership. I do consider English and American to be nearly separate languages in my brain, and selfishly, I’d be thrilled to not have to distinguish between the two. If we can make this happen, I’m all for it!

    Posted by Hadley Beeman, 6 June, 2010, 10:17pm

  • Did you mean spelt? 😉

    Posted by Dan, 6 June, 2010, 10:24pm

  • No, no, noooooooo. Impossible, for one thing. Language constantly evolves. The day after the standard was fixed, there’d be a bifurcation somewhere or other: a dissident voice breaking a rule, only for it to be picked up and repeated. A few more bifurcations give you a schism, and so we go on. Nothing could counter that sort of natural variation. People would go mad trying. (They’d be fairly likely to be editors…)

    Posted by Paul Clarke, 6 June, 2010, 10:24pm

  • Seems to me the true differences lie in the subtleties of usage much more than the spelling – for example, if I say I’m “quite” sure about this, my Brit friends will take it differently than my local crew. New Yorker had a nice article on the British elections that started from the subtle differences in British culture between moaning and complaining, another subtlety it had taken me years to learn. And even worse, the differences in upper vs. lower class speaking (on both sides of the pond and then esp. Down Under) – and let’s not even get into the rules of who can interrupt whom and when – as a native New Yorker I’ve given up ever trying to figure out how other people deal with one person talking at a time… so while it would be good for spelling correctors if we had this magic of one text, I think the cultural differences will last far longer than the language ones (and vive la difference — if you’ll pardon my French)

    Posted by James Hendler, 6 June, 2010, 10:31pm

  • But I did have this thought when passing through Marylebone the other day. Certainly for well-observed and documented place names like this – written down far more frequently, and with far greater visibility than ever before – is the age of corruption now over? I can’t imagine it transforming to Marleebun in the Age of Teh Internetz. Oh. Perhaps I can after all. Funny thing, language.

    Posted by Paul Clarke, 6 June, 2010, 10:35pm

  • Dan, I think the OED will back me up here: http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/spell_1?view=uk


    • verb (past and past part. spelled or chiefly Brit. spelt)

    (I interpret “Chiefly Brit” to mean “usage more popular in Britain than in other English speaking countries”, not “the ‘right’ form to use in Britain.) 🙂

    Posted by Hadley Beeman, 7 June, 2010, 10:45am

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