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Another storm has been raging lately in the teacup of English. Like many linguistic squalls, this one is centered on spelling. It blew up in Britain late last year after the government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority decreed the use of internationally agreed spellings for some scientific terms — “sulfate” rather than “sulphate,” for example, or “fetus” for “foetus” — in British examinations. The proposal was greeted with horror by the usual consortium of traditionalists and patriots; many certainly took it not as a concession to “international” conventions, but as one more sign of the creeping Americanization of English. Last month, the QCA backed down, saying that the usual English spellings would be kept, but that students using the international forms would not be “penalised” — or, as we up-to-date spellers put it, “penalized.”

Trivial though the issue might seem, it stirs a surprising amount of emotion. People in places like Japan who are trying hard to learn English in one or another of its variant forms find it simultaneously fascinating, confusing and irritating. There is uniformity in other widely spoken languages, they point out, including French. Why can’t English speakers get their act together and agree on some standard spellings, not just for scientific terms, but for all the other words that cause so much hard feeling between Britons and Americans and so many headaches for everyone else? Czar or tsar? Favor or favour? Program or programme? Modernize or modernise? Aluminum or aluminium? The list goes on. The Japan Times, which follows American usage perhaps a tad too slavishly, is forever being criticized for referring to the British Labor Party, when it is plain that no such thing exists. To all such well-intended users of English, it would make great sense for English spelling to be brought into conformity with a single standard.

The problems, however, are instantly obvious: Whose standard? And who is going to enforce conformity to it? Obviously not the QCA or any other government department on either side of the Atlantic, which is where this orthographic battle line is chiefly drawn. (The U.S. government refuses even to broach the far more urgent topic of metrication, leaving the country stranded on the near-deserted shore of imperial measures.) For here’s the rub: If non-English speakers are irritated by differences in usage, native speakers are traumatized by the idea of losing them. People cling to their childhood habits, as any government bent on legislating cultural change knows, and language habits are more closely bound up than most with people’s sense of national identity. It is not just a British or American thing, either: Consider the fuss made by Germans when their government tried recently to update and simplify some archaic German spelling conventions. Nein, danke!

No, if there is ever to be uniformity in English, it will have to be achieved gradually, through force of numbers — just as the United States will eventually, inevitably, have to succumb to metrics. The QCA slyly hinted at this in its recent memo of surrender: “Teachers . . . should consider whether to make older pupils and students aware of international agreements on the spelling of technical terms where these differ from the standard English forms,” it wrote. That is exactly the kind of Trojan-horse approach that will someday cause the quiet demise of “sulphur” and all its offshoots, without any help from government bureaucracies. That, and the rise of the Internet, where — as British scientists themselves have pointed out — search engines simply respond better to international spellings. A search for the word “caesium” on Google.com, for instance, produced 24,100 responses, compared to 66,500 for “cesium.” No scientist pressed for time can afford to be too patriotic about that “British” diphthong.

Some people think spelling doesn’t matter anyway — and their ranks have included some very famous writers, from England’s Shakespeare to America’s Flannery O’Connor. This is all very well if you are Shakespeare or Flannery O’Connor, but for most of us, spelling does matter, if only because, as the late English novelist Kingsley Amis once said, “People with strong views about ‘correct’ English are just the sort of people who consider your application for a job [or] decide whether you are ‘educated’ or not.” There is a difference, of course, between writing “sulfite” in a British job application and writing, as someone had done in a real-estate advertisement we saw recently, “This house is a jem in the making.” One is a polite disagreement; the other is an out-and-out howler. Still, it would surely be easier for scientists, salesmen and students alike if all English words were spelled/spelt the same way: There would be less ranco(u)r all round, even though life might seem a little more gray/grey. We favo(u)r it.

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