Lesson 4.1 Webster Offers Us a More Color(Colour)ful Language

downloadable worksheet

 

You know those differences between American and British spelling? Words like color/colour or center/centre? Well, Noah Webster is responsible for most of them.  We mostly know of Webster because of his dictionaries, the first of which was published in 1828, but he was also a spelling reformer, political writer, editor, and author.

 

Webster wanted to make the language of the U.S. distinct from that of Britain, and he believed spelling some words differently was one good way to do that. So slowly, edition by edition of both the spelling book and the dictionary, Webster introduced American English spellings, replacing "colour" with "color", substituting "wagon" for "waggon", and “defense” for “defence”. You can see from the chart here that some of this changes stuck; others didn’t.

 

Our spelling system is fairly fixed now, but is still in flux to some extent. For example,  there has recently been an increase in the spelling of theatre with -re rather than -er. You’ll see both theater and theatre, but the more British -re spelling seems to be used now to refer to dramatic theatre as opposed to a movie theater.

 

How and why do you think changes like this happen? Who decides when a spelling can change? None of the other words with -re seem to be changing (center-centre, fiber-fibre). And some never did change from -re to -er; for example,-re following <c> or <g> remained, so we have acre and ogre, not aker or oger as Webster wanted.

 

Can you think of other words that have more than one spelling for the very same meaning?

 

Activity: Look up these words  and see what dictionaries have to say about these spellings:

grey-gray

judgement-judgment

thru-through

archaeology-archeology

disc-disk

axe-ax

sceptic-skeptic

whiskey-whisky

yoghurt-yogurt

 

 

key words: language change, spelling, dictionaries, history of English

 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2f Use spelling patterns and generalizations (e.g., word families, position-based spellings, syllable patterns, ending rules, meaningful word parts) in writing words. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2g Consult reference materials, including beginning dictionaries, as needed to check and correct spellings. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.2d Spell grade-appropriate words correctly, consulting references as needed. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.4c Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation and determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.4c Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation and determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases. 

 

Here is this lesson as a pdf.