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Why does British Spelling Keep the U in Words Like Colour?

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  • Written By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 03 April 2014
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Although the reasons why British spelling keeps the u in certain words, such as colour, flavour and honour, may not be very definite, it may speak to a sense of tradition and a hesitation to make sweeping changes to the accepted spelling rules. While many Brits may blame Americans for hijacking and ruining the language, in reality, English had undergone numerous changes over the centuries, dictated by different influences. The division that had begun to take place between American spelling, which favored -or endings, and British spelling, which used -our endings, was first apparent with the publication of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.

Samuel Johnson, who published the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, was a spelling purist. His dictionary was and is considered the accepted authority on British spelling. He felt that his purpose wasn’t to advocate spelling reform, but only to document accepted British spelling. He even went as far to say that the “evolution” of spelling was a corruption of the language, particularly with “American” English. Webster, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to advocate for spelling reform, and included “Americanized” spellings with -or endings. Webster believed that spelling could be simplified and still remain correct.

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Some British scholars as early as the 16th and 17th centuries thought that -or should only be used for words derived from Latin origins, while -our should only be used for French derivations. Although most of the words that end in -or and -our are of Latin and Old French origins, and both endings were used interchangeably, after the Norman Conquest, spelling switched to strictly using -our in an effort to pay tribute to the old French pronunciations of the words.

A London court called the Old Bailey ruled in the 17th century that -our endings were the correct British spelling. It became commonly accepted in Britain that in cases where an English suffix or suffixes of Greek or Latin origins are attached, the u is kept. This is demonstrated in the word neighbourhood. The difference comes with Latin suffixes that don’t attach freely to words, such as in vigorous. In these cases, the u can be retained or dropped.

Countries that are or were commonwealths of England usually follow common British spelling, with the exception of the US. Canadians typically use both, while Australians retain the -our endings. American English continues to be criticized by many British English speakers, while many Americans wonder why the Brits retain seemingly antiquated aspects of the language. Although many chalk up the American adaptations of British spelling to the early colonists’ spirit of independence or perhaps to increasing influences from immigrants around the world, British spelling is documented in early American writing.

One such example is in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson used the British spelling of honour, which was changed to honor by the final draft. Why did he make this change? It could have been an innocent spelling error, or perhaps it was just another act of rebellion against the British.

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anon943745
Post 19

It's pretty simple. 99 percent of people who traveled to America when the British colonies began where from the lower/working classes, therefore (back then), they where uneducated. Thus, when the US became independent, and began to educate the younger generations, they spelled word the way it sounded, therefore leaving out the U from various words, in the same way they replace S with Z in many words.

So, in conclusion, the spelling difference in America are from generations of the uneducated, attempting to educate. The blind leading the blind.

anon356467
Post 18

Actually, here in Canada, we use the -our endings too. Many people only do -or but the correct way is -our.

amypollick
Post 16

@anon330971: Ah, but the word "herbs" does not have a consistent pronunciation in America. Some say "herbs" with the "h," while some use the silent "h" pronunciation.

There's no way you're going to get 300 million people to pronounce each word in the same fashion, across the board. Even the English don't do it. A Cornishman, for example, sounds very different than a resident of Yorkshire.

As another poster noted, English is a living language, and with increasing numbers of people speaking it as non-natives, it's going to keep changing. While still adhering to the principles of good usage, we may as well adapt to the changes and take them in stride.

anon330971
Post 15

@anon29506: "The problem has gotten out of hand". In other words, "The problem is received out of hand". That does make sense. Try to read slowly.

Another rather strange pronunciation is "Herbs", which Americans pronounce as "erbs". This would be acceptable if they pronounced "Hotel" as "otel" but they do not.

What is an exception?

anon307368
Post 14

Why not spell correctly and us the "u" in colour, flavour, harbour etc? Not using he "u" is dreadful and disrespectful to the English language. Another word the drives me crazy is the use of the word "gotten". If you have to use the word "got" and you do not if you are not a lazy person, then using it in the past tense should be "have got".

anon301728
Post 13

@anon279568: I'm pretty sure they know that. If you re-read their post, you'll see they were explaining their students' overuse of the word.

By the way, to the people saying Americans don't pronounce the H in certain words while pronouncing it in words that Brits don't, don't generalize. Some of us do pronounce the H in words like herb, human, etc. It's annoying hearing people pronounce human "you-men" when it's "hue" not "you".

anon290846
Post 11

What drives me crackers is a lot of American Pastors pronounce humble as 'umble' and yet do not drop the H in other words, as a Brit would. It comes across to me as pretentious. I think the practice comes mainly from "monkey see, monkey do" or rather "monkey hear, monkey say".

anon279568
Post 10

@Anon 29506: "Gotten" is the past participle of get. And you say you're an English teacher?

anon279567
Post 9

It drives me crazy that the British are such hypocrites when it comes to spelling. People who want to retain 'colour' (et. al) presumably would also like us to go back to spelling 'old' as 'olde' or 'shop' as 'shoppe', or 'today' as 'to-day', etc. English is a living language, and many British are now probably the most illiterate people in the world when it comes to their own language. Having archaic spellings doesn't help the already illiterate masses; it only hinders them further. As a personal annoyance, if I hear one more Brit say "I was sat", I'm going to scream. However, it's just an everyday example of a lack of education. And what's with wanting to change "ize" to "ise" and retain the French-influenced "our" instead of "or"? Are we French or British?

As for "ize," seeing as so many are uneducated about the subject, "ize" is from the Greek. Words like "organize" are correct Greek/English. If you look back at old British books, you’ll see "organize" is always spelled with a "Z." "Organise" is the French alternative spelling, which was adopted by the British aristocracy to differentiate themselves from the commoners of England.

But the uneducated think those "stupid Americans" changed our English words to American. Drives me crazy how uneducated some of the British are about their own language.

anon167600
Post 8

anon46649: We differentiate between anaesthetist (a nurse) and anesthesiologist (a doctor). The -ologist suffix can indeed mean "area of study", but it can also mean "area of expertise" and to insist otherwise is to be so rigidly pedantic that it is verging on incorrect.

"Normalcy" was popularized after a speech given by Warren Harding in 1920, but the word is found in dictionaries as far back as 1857.

I'm not familiar with the phrase "out in back" or the context in which it would be used, so I can't address that. Perhaps you can explain to me why so many of my English friends say "I am sat here..." instead of "I am sitting here..." or we can just agree that every culture has its quirky non-standard English phrases and leave it at that.

Finally, "to" is a preposition. When you stated, "...to lazy to pronounce..." I am certain you meant "too" which means "excessively". But we all have our slip-ups, no matter on what side of the pond we reside, so it's silly to point such things out as ignorant, yes?

anon150165
Post 7

It's true you'll find a person who hates the French at least somewhere in Britain.

We like to poke fun of them now and I'm sure it's the same over there but we don't hate the French. Quite a lot of Brits actually love them and love going to France on holidays. Same with Spain. I'm a Brit and I like the French a lot.

It's just playful rivalry really, just like how the British and Americans like to poke fun at each other but we don't hate each other.

anon138303
Post 6

Don't the British despise the French? Perhaps despise is too strong a word, but in my experience Brits tend to make fun of the French for being cowards in World War II, effeminate, snobby, etc, so why would they then adhere to a system of spelling honoring their Norman conquerors?

Isn't it well established that many American terms are merely older British words that fell out of favor? I believe "soccer" is such a word.

English spelling is already confusing and ridiculous enough, so why add an extra "u" or "me" to words? It just confuses ESL/EFL learners, and as an English teacher my job is already hard enough without having to explain that the extra "u" in British words is silent.

anon128577
Post 5

If you are having some trouble with the English grammar, when I was in school they actually stopped teaching it. It was expected that we would pick up most of the rules. I never even had to diagram a sentence. As a result I learned more grammar from my Spanish classes than my English ones.

anon46649
Post 4

The reason americans use "erbs" is pure pretension, copied from american cookery programmes that pretend to have French chefs, but are to lazy to pronounce "les Herbes". Further, can anybody explain the American need to change existing words to make them longer? e,g, "Anaesthesiologist" which in theory means someone engaged in the study of Anaesthesia rather than its application. Please also explain the stupidity of "out in back" and "normalcy". I think it's just plain ignorance.

anon34773
Post 3

This is an interesting perspective. It is the Americans that have not accepted spelling rules. Get with the programme.

anon29506
Post 2

As an English teacher I am constantly correcting spelling, grammar and syntax. While I understand that Americans have the right to change English, it is frustrating to find my students using "off of" or "like" it was really bad. I also have a problem with the overuse of "gotten", and old English word. The word gotten means to receive something but it is often used in the incorrect manner e.g "The problem has gotten out of hand". In other words "The problem is received out of hand".(does not make sense). Another rather strange pronunciation is "Herbs", which Americans pronounce as "erbs". This would be acceptable if they pronounced "Hotel" as "otel" but they do not. To obtain a "licence" to drive is entirely different than earning the "license" to speak your mind. Finally,I was always under the impression that my cap "fitted" (past tense)as opposed to "my cap "fit" (present tense).

cmckeonjr
Post 1

I am wondering about the change in spelling from Old English "wolde" to modern "would." Is this an effect of the Norman introduction of French into English language?

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