Matthew Edney, who describes himself as "a British-born academic who now, 27 years after first arrival, is linguistically located somewhere in the general confusion of the mid-Atlantic", sent me an interesting query about the history of English spelling. Since I know almost nothing about this subject, I'm forwarding the question to LL readers, who are likely among them to have the answers, or at least some useful observations.
My query is prompted by an article in today's Guardian: Sarah Churchwell, "English: it's a neologism thang, innit", 5/9/2010.
In the midst of commenting on the inclusion of "thang" etc. in the official Scrabble dictionary, the commentator (an American) makes reference to how Noah Webster nationalized American spelling (-ize rather than -ise, -or rather than -our, etc.). I have seen this opinion in many places, from Bill Bryson's history of the English language to other online journalists.
BUT, my own research suggests a different historical process. In studying the British mapping of India between 1760 and 1840 for my dissertation, I observed a coherent shift in the written language of the officers of the East India Company, in particular from almost universal -or in the 1760s to universal -our by the 1830s. That is, the divergence was not one of US nationalism — Webster only described and codified long-standing linguistic practice in the New England colonies (prescribing them for other parts of the nascent USA). Rather the divergence was on the other side of the Atlantic, as the middle and upper-classes in Britain got all snooty and Frenchified their spelling (which is ironic, given that the era of change was primarily taken up in the long wars against the French).
So, my query is actually twofold:
a) am I off base in my identification of what seems to be an historical myth of the origins of American English as one more attempt to justify the exceptional nature of American culture?
b) if I am correct, what accounted for the changes in British spelling during the period 1780-1830?
[Above is a guest query by Mathew Edney.]
My uninformed reaction is that -our for -or doesn't seem very much like early-19th-century Frenchification, since the cognate words en français at that time ended in -eur. And as a small empirical contribution, I note that the 1776 edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall has 20 instances of "splendor" but 14 of "splendour"; 94 instances of "valour" and none of "valor"; 10 instances of "colour" and none of "color"; 40 instances of "vigour" and none of "vigor"; etc.
As for -ize/-ise, the OED agrees that the Frenchification concept applies:
… in modern French the suffix has become -iser, alike in words from Greek, as baptiser, évangéliser, organiser, and those formed after them from Latin, as civiliser, cicatriser, humaniser. Hence, some have used the spelling -ise in English, as in French, for all these words, and some prefer -ise in words formed in French or English from Latin elements, retaining -ize for those formed < Greek elements. But the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν, Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic. In this Dictionary the termination is uniformly written -ize.
But as this culturomics graph for British books suggests, the process of Frenchification was apparently not fully established in British practice until the end of the 19th century: