Does English need colour and glamour?

Color Abstract

For that matter, does English need favour, honour, flavour, savour and so many more -our words? Before our Australian, British and Canadian fellow English speakers panic – relax. This is just a point of discussion. From the standpoint of communication, it does seem that color, glamor, favor, flavor, honor and savor are satisfactory. Yes, these are the American spellings, but please note, US English generally prefers glamour. Thus the US -our/-or spellings are also not clearly defined.

Moreover, outside the US, the spellings are honourable but honorary (not honourary) so English in the UK is equally inconsistent. I must confess that I am a bit OCD and this type of untidiness is somewhat unnerving. While it is not going to end world hunger or solve world peace, I can’t help but ask whether we can come to some agreement on the lack of consistency and find some common ground. To add to this situation, some derivations of these words have already begun to lose the extra “u“ in the UK spelling. Note that the derivations of glamour and humour in the UK are glamorous and humorous, respectively. The combination of –our plus –ous appears to be a bit too much for all English speakers.

Noah Webster is basically responsible for many of the reforms in English spellings such as color ~ colour, center ~ centre and defense ~ defence. There has not been a real reform since then, in the early 1800’s, so it may be time to rethink some of these inconsistencies and redundancies. One argument for a reform is economic: producing text in all varieties of English can be very expensive.

Clearly there is a good argument for retaining the cultural flavo(u)r and historical development. English is richer for these details. Therefore I would like to ask you, do we really need “u” in our “our” words, or will “or” suffice for communicating on a worldwide basis?

Our native language is a very personal and emotional subject; language is identity. We all want to keep our individual identity and cultural perspectives. To quote a great observer of human nature on tradition and innovation:

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven’t been done before. Mark Twain

Marry merry Mary!

Marry2The title above is perhaps an unlikely but perfectly logical and complete sentence, albeit a string of homophones – that is, words where the phones (a linguistic term for sounds) are pronounced the same but spelled differently. In fact, the word phone is a homograph. That is, words spelled alike but with different meanings; phone can mean either a telephone or a sound. Homophones and homographs like these clearly illustrate the complexity of spelling and meaning in English. And these are the tip of, you know, an underwater mountain of ice. To the delight of comedians, English has thousands.

Movements such as the Simplified Spelling Society have proposed that words be spelled as pronounced. So we could choose any of the three words and rewrite the sentence as “Marry marry Marry!” or “Merry merry Merry!” or “Mary mary Mary!” There are obvious limitations to such a solution. The alternative would be a generic phonetic spelling such as “Meri meri Meri!” Again, hurdles to overcome. In truth, Oxford shows slight variations in the first vowel sound, but in the general “broadcast” American English pronunciation, all three are pronounced the same. So whose pronunciation should we use?

The etymology, origins, of the words are different of course, see Oxford Dictionaries online.

marry: Middle English: from Old French marier, from Latin maritare, from maritus, literally ‘married’, (as a noun) ‘husband’.

merry: Old English myrige ‘pleasing, delightful’, of Germanic origin; related to mirth.

And Mary as a name  –  the traditional spelling – has many variations as well, including Merry.

By reducing English spelling to reflect pronunciation could potentially mean the loss of rich historical and cultural information as well as the problems of which standard of pronunciation to use. So we are back to the beginning.

One word, one spelling?

Spelling rulesThe question of spelling reform is an important one. Should there be one form – that is, one spelling, one grammar, one common meaning — of English words and terms? There are currently two to six or even more ways to spell certain words.

For example, the spellings organization and organisation are different depending on the region of the world. In the US and Canada, organization is preferred; in the UK and Australia, organisation is preferred. Exception: in the UK, Oxford Dictionary and British academics prefer organization (and I bet you knew that an exception was coming). So there can even be two spellings of a word within one country.

Then there are multiple syllables that can vary within a single word like: sulfurization, sulphurisation, sulphurization. Next add a prefix, with or without a hyphen: desulfurization, de-sulfurization, desulphurisation, de-sulphurisation, desulphurization and de-sulphurization. And the list goes on, in fact there are tens of thousands of these two types of spelling variations in English.

Does it matter which form we use? In all cases we understand the word. But in writing well the credibility of the author is questioned. Does this person think clearly and consistently? If their spelling lacks consistency, is their thinking just as inconsistent and unclear?

Consistency, clarity. Let’s leave no doubt and use one spelling, at least in the same document.

NOTE: By the way, and just for fun, see what a differences punctuation makes. Spelling rules: ~ Spelling rules. ~ Spelling rules! With a colon it is a noun phrase where you can expect a list to follow; second, a complete sentence, where spelling is the noun/subject and rules is the verb, “to dominate or govern”; third, spelling is the noun/subject and rules is an informal verb meaning “is the best”. So what’s the message here.