Which flavor, British English or American English, first standardised its modern spellings?

I'm mostly interested in the direction of alteration; for example, was the u dropped from colour or was the u added to color? I'm interested in a general answer rather than an answer to this specific example, though.

The history of dictionary releases seems to indicate that British was standardised first:

However, I'm not certain that any of those three dictionaries represents a modern enough standard to be considered the first real standard of English for either dialect.

Clearly both languages have evolved since their initial standardisation, but which set of spellings was standardised first?

Edit: To clarify, I'm interested in the chronology rather than repute or popularity. Which dialect had its modern (by which I mean contemporary, present-day) spellings published or released in a dictionary first?

  • American English -was- British English for quite a while (and so if there was a standard at all, it was for the colonies, too). Webster's was intended as a bit of spelling reform for all varieties of English, it just didn't catch on everywhere (or really anywhere else).
    – Mitch
    Dec 5 '11 at 18:31
  • @Mitch as I understand it, Webster was in fact seeking to standardize an American langauge: edweb.sdsu.edu/people/DKitchen/new_655/webster_language.htm
    – phoog
    Dec 13 '11 at 2:23
  • English isn't standardised. Oxford claims authority on English but they don't have it.
    – user3446
    Sep 28 '12 at 9:31
  • 1
    The various British and American flavors of English do not constitute separate languages as alleged by the OP. Furthermore, despite what @jeshan erroneously alleges, the OED makes no such claim.
    – tchrist
    Nov 1 '12 at 16:37
  • 1604 was not Old English but Early Modern English, when Shakespeare was busy writing, and had already written Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Hamlet and Othello.
    – Hugo
    Mar 21 '13 at 8:12

I don’t agree with what others have said about there being no standardisation of English spelling. When Caxton decided to print in the south-east Midlands dialect in the second half of the fifteenth century he began a process which led ultimately to Standard English as we know it today. Its first major codification, including its spelling, came with the publication in 1928, after more than 40 years work, of ‘A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles’. That in turn led to the Oxford English Dictionary, still the reference of last resort for information about all aspects of English words. It is based on the way the language is and has been used, and its definitions, as well as its spellings, are supported by numerous citations.

Standardisation of the language in the United States seems to have begun almost as soon of the first settlers arrived and American English today seems to be more rule-driven than British English. American spelling bees are just one example of a characteristic striving for linguistic uniformity. Noah Webster wanted to create a separate linguistic identity for the United States and it is his almost singlehanded effort, evident in the dictionaries he published in the first half of the nineteenth century, that is responsible for the American spelling we know today.

Spelling is now more regular than it has ever been, to the extent that an errant spelling is almost on a level with a sin against the Holy Ghost. That would have been inconceivable in earlier times. Some words, it is true, have variant spellings, but they are small in number. None of this is to say that spelling will change in the future, but the pressure for homogeneity is unlikely to weaken.


Neither of them has ever been standardised.

Once dictionaries and other manuals began to appear, many people (in particular, educators) treated the dictionaries as authorities.

Having said that, I suspect that Webster's prestige, coupled with his deliberate appeal to patriotism, made his authority more pervasive in the US than anything in Britain. I haven't checked this out, though.

  • Your exact first sentence was already in my mind before I scrolled down to it! I'm pretty sure it's commonly accepted that Webster had more credibility/authority than any counterparts on either side of the pond, for various reasons including that "patriotism". Another factor I rate is that his dictionary was more like an encyclopedia than most alternatives. Silly example, I know, but his definition of, say, "bread" might tell you how to sow, harvest, mill, and bake. Everything you needed to know for living out in the sticks, so long as you had a Bible to keep you righteous as well. Dec 5 '11 at 17:46
  • I'll clarify - which dialect had a dictionary containing modern (i.e. current day) spellings published/released first? I'm not particularly interested in its popularity, but rather the chronology.
    – Polynomial
    Dec 5 '11 at 17:49
  • @Polynomial - that's a bit of a circular question. What is modern spelling? If you consider 1900 modern, then the first dictionary published in 1901 and so on. Even a dictionary from 20 years ago would have spelled it 'e-mail', one today would say 'email'. 'Modern English' is normally considered from the early 17C (ie Shakespere) so all dictionaries are modern english.
    – mgb
    Dec 7 '11 at 4:10

As Colin said, neither of them has been standardised.

Having said that. I don't believe Johnson's dictionary was an attempt to standardise spelling so much as to establish usage and citation as the model of deciding how a word was used.

Webster definitely had an agenda of standardising, and regularising spelling - so you could argue his was the first, and only attempt.

(damn American spell checker keeps trying to put 'z' everywhere!)

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