Spelling standards

Derrick e-mailed the other day with the following request.
My question to you, based on your interesting in both spelling variants and common citation of Wikipedia, is what your opinion is on the official Wikipedia policy on English spelling in articles, described here. [...]It's one of the oldest rules on Wikipedia, resolved in its infancy, and has stood the test of time, consistently resisting attempts to modify it. [...] I've seen proposals to consistently use one spelling method, to extend the software to allow the user to configure which spelling they prefer, and countless other suggestions, but all met a rapid demise. Is this a good rule, and why is it so popular? Thanks for your insight.
I was glad he drew this to my attention. I think it's a popular policy because it's a terribly sensible policy.

Basically, any standard English orthography (spelling system) can be used on Wikipedia, with the following provisos:
  1. Articles should use the same dialect throughout.
  2. If there is a strong tie to a specific region/dialect, use that dialect.
  3. In choosing words or expressions (especially article titles) there may be value in selecting one that does not have multiple variant spellings if there are synonyms that are otherwise equally suitable and reasonable.
  4. Follow the dialect of the first contributor.

I've heard British people argue that BrE spelling should be used in international contexts because the UK is the 'homeland' of English. I've heard Americans argue that AmE spelling should be used because Americans outnumber the British. I've heard learners of English from other countries argue in favo(u)r of AmE spelling because American cultural exports are more widely found than British. Whichever decision one makes about how international English should be spelt/spelled, some sector is going to be offended or disappointed. So, let's not favo(u)r either. Let's let the forces of culture decide.

Rule 2 in the list above is exemplified on another Wikipedia page:
Sean Connery
Fact profile: A Scottish-born actor, but has spent much time in America. He now lives in the Bahamas. However, he has retained his British citizenship and still sees himself as Scottish.
Conclusion: Use standard Scottish English for the article on Sean Connery.
Harold Larwood
Fact profile: English-born cricketer, who is notable for his performances for England in the 1932/3 Bodyline series. After retirement he emigrated to Australia, took Australian citizenship and saw himself as Australian.
Conclusion: As his notability relates to the period in which he lived in Britain, use standard British English for the article on Harold Larwood.
Said Musa
Fact profile: Said Musa is the Prime Minister of Belize. He was born in Belize when it was known as "British Honduras" and was under British rule. He also studied law at Manchester University in England, but returned to Belize the following year. He became a politician in independent Belize and has lived there ever since. Belize usually considers itself a Caribbean nation, rather than a Central American nation.
Conclusion: Use standard Caribbean English for the article on Said Musa.
Fiat Regata
Fact profile: The Fiat Regata is an Italian motor car. It is produced in Italy, where there is no national variety of English, by an Italian company. It is sold in many markets, across which many varieties of English are in use.
Conclusion: The country of Italy is within the political and geographical entity of Europe. The government of the European Union has several official languages including British English. This is currently the version employed in the article.
All of these conclusions are debatable (or moot?), of course, but we've got a lovely set of rules as the pivot on which our debate reels. How pleasantly legalistic! (And no, I don't think that's an oxymoron.)


  1. Larwood surely should get Standard English English if Connery is to get Standard Scottish English? Anyway, shouldn't Connery get Shtandard Shcottish English?

  2. > I've heard Americans argue that AmE spelling should be used because Americans outnumber the British.

    Well, of course they do, by about four times. However, users of British English orthography in the world outnumber Americans by an even greater ratio. Most of the Commonwealth uses BrE, and in quite a number of those countries English is one of the official languages; a typical example is India. India has a population about four times again larger than that of the USA. Add to this all the other Commonwealth countries, plus all international bodies that use BrE, like the European Union, NATO, the UN and all its offspring, and you'll find AmE spelling very much swamped. Even such bodies as the International Aluminium Institute (judging by how it chooses to spell its name) uses BrE.

    As for cultural output, I suspect that the amount of printed material using BrE orthography currently produced is much greater than that using AmE, though I haven't researched that yet.

    Despite all this, I do not expect Americans to change their mode of spelling, any more than I expect Croatians to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet, or Serbs to adopt the Roman.

    Nor would I think it necessary for Americans, so far as the spoken language is concerned, to adapt their accents to those of SR BrE, even though communication by speech is more liable to miscomprehension than communication by the written word.

  3. I don't know whether your supposition is true, Howard, but it strikes me as doubtful.

    First, while many commonwealth countries use British spelling, it is often different in some way to the British standard--Canadian is a real hybrid of US and UK spelling.

    Second, I know of UK publishers that prefer AmE spelling (I know of them because they publish me and take my proudly learnt BrE spellings out!) because they expect to have a larger US than UK/Commonwealth market for their wares. But I don't know of any US publishers that insist on BrE spelling.

    Third, the web is AmE-ruled, and while you refer to 'printed material' and therefore might not be counting the web, it's probably a good indicator of what the printed language is like.

    Google hits for a few US/UK spelling differences:

    colour 131m vs. color 525m

    mollusc 1.04m vs. mollusk 1.16m
    (and the BrE spelling count may include hits for the Latin mollusca)

    traveller 27.4m vs. traveler 56m

    fulfilment 7.19m vs. fulfillment 37.4m

    Now, you could take comfort in this site, at which British spelling has been voted one of the best things in life (by what appears to be a motley crew of teenagers). But scroll down and read the comment by Gendo--what beautiful irony!

  4. >Conclusion: Use standard Scottish English for >the article on Sean Connery.

    I agree with all your comments on this matter, Lynne, but now that you know who I am, I'm sure you'd be surprised and disappointed if I missed an opportunity for petty nit-picking.

    I believe that standard Scottish English would say "He now stays in the Bahamas" rather than "He now lives in the Bahamas".

    Well, you were the only person to beat me at Scrabble yesterday, so I had to find something to critici{s/z}e.

  5. There is also, of course, the Scots Wikipedia. There are some interesting arguments on the talk page about whether Scots counts as a real language at all.

  6. I'm reminded of the way to determine if your dialect is a language see:- Weinreich

    "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy".

  7. > First, while many commonwealth countries use British spelling, it is often different in some way to the British standard--Canadian is a real hybrid of US and UK spelling.

    The two-mindedness of Canadian spelling standards is well-known, but I think this ambivalence is unusual in the rest of the Commonwealth. (The Commonwealth represents almost two billion [American billions! ;)] people, or a about 30% of the world's population.)

    > But I don't know of any US publishers that insist on BrE spelling.

    I am sure you are right for the moment, and I know of only one tiny exception: The Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, beloved of librarians, and published by the University of Chicago, uses BrE orthography throughout, not just in its title. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AACR2

    > the web is AmE-ruled,

    It is at the moment, for obvious reasons. But as Commonwealth developing countries inreasingly take to the web, I'd expect BrE spellings (or Commonwealth English, as some like to call it) come to dominate.

    > what beautiful irony!

    It is indeed delicious!

  8. My vote is for AmE's being the standard because (a) its users are in the majority and (b) a standard involves having one way of doing things, not many. In that vein, I'm currently in email-dispute with the BBC's pronunciation-unit (who recently published a dictionary with Oxford university-press) over their putting a final r on their non-IPA rendition of kilometre. I pointed out that there was no r in that word in RP and they responded that it was in there because the BBC's rhotic speakers could use it while non-rhotics could just give it a miss. I remarked that they appeared to be dealing with more than one RP, rhotic and non-rhotic, and asked if there were also two RPs when it came to choosing whether to pronounce bath as /bɑθ/ or /baθ/. I didn't get a reply to that email.

  9. With the risk of being offtopic, howard, Serbs already have adopted the Roman alphabet in many regions. It is interesting how even government officials, such as border patrol, have different name tags, according to the part of Serbia they serve in - on the border with Bulgaria the Cyrillic is dominant, while going further north-west, Roman becomes increasingly more used.

  10. Surly AEn is merely a dialect of english, and should be no more official than trying to write in yorkshire, geordie, or scouse?

  11. (a) Surely every English is a dialect of English, not just Geordie, etc. AmE is not so much a dialect (although I do refer to it as such here) as a collection of dialects, organized around a standard AmE. AmE spellings, note, are generally not reflections of AmE pronunciation, and neither are BrE spellings reflections of particularly BrE pronunciations. So, it's not really 'dialects' (which have different pronunciation) that we're talking about when we talk of spelling differences, but different systems of standardization.

    (b) There is no 'official' English spelling system, in that there is no equivalent of the Académie Française for English. The dictionaries we use record the language standards, rather than prescribing them. English spelling is, in a sense, down to market forces.

    (c) If the US and the UK should be 'required' to have the same spelling system because their languages are mutually intelligible (mostly) [the usual diagnostic for dialects], then the same authority should 'require' Danish and Norwegian to be spelled the same, Hindi and Urdu to use the same orthography. There are plenty of cases in which mutually intelligible and historically related language varieties have different spelling standards.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)