Noah Webster (1758-1843) published The American Spelling Book in 1783. He accepted British spellings, even citing Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language as his guide. A few years later, Webster had a change of heart and introduced simplified spellings. His stated goal was, “The omission of all superfluous and silent letters” (Essay, 1789).
The 1804 edition of the speller deleted “u” from words ending in our (behaviour), and “k” from those ending in ick (musick). The next edition (1806) replaced que endings with “k” (cheque). As well, Webster substituted se for ce, as in defence which became defense. He also dropped the double “l” in such words as travelling.
These modifications became standard American spellings. Still, some suggested changes were overwhelmingly rejected by Americans. For example, Webster advocated abolishing “e” whenever it appeared as a final silent letter, as in examine and positive. He also tried to remove other silent letters — the “s” in island, the “a” in weather.
Since Webster’s time, there’ve been significant efforts made regarding more logical spelling. In Britain, in 1908, The Simplified Spelling Society emerged. Its goal is revision that brings a word’s spelling close to the way that word sounds.
Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950 was passionate re spelling reform. Most of his own work was written in a shorthand that represented word sounds. When he died, Shaw left considerable funding toward development of a new alphabet structured on the phonetic system. This alphabet, devised by Kinsley Read, is called “Shavian.” The Shavian alphabet, which never caught on anywhere, offers separate symbols for of, and, the and to. There are no apostrophes or capitals in written Shavian.
The American Literary Council, founded in 1806, believes the primary cause of illiteracy to be “lack of phonic logic.”
And so, American spellings continue to diverge from those of British English. Canadians, seemingly, use whichever spelling suits their fancy although, because of our French connection, those words echoing French spellings will probably never change here. Such words include those with re endings — centre, theatre, calibre, etc.
Test yourself as to your manner of spelling — ax (U.S) or axe (British); check (U.S.) or cheque (British); program (U.S.) or programme (British); donut (U.S.) or doughnut (British); drafty (U.S.) or draughty (British); gray (U.S.) or grey (British); jewelry (U.S.) or jewellery (British); licorice (U.S.) or liquorice (British); maneuver (U.S.) or manoeuvre (British); mold (U.S.) or mould (British); sulfur (U.S.) or sulphur (British).
Chances are that you just discovered you use some American and some British spellings. If so, you are typical.
My husband, whose mother tongue was French, was largely educated in the French language. When our oldest son once brought home a report card carrying the teacher’s admonition that his spelling must improve, my husband wrote, “Danny will do better in futur.”
Just imagine the hilarity in the staff room when that comment was shared. Can’t you hear teachers saying? “No wonder the kid can’t spell.” But, futur is the correct French spelling of future.
Our language’s tangled roots will probably always cause confusion.