American and British English spelling differences

British and American spellings around the world:
  defence/labour/organise dominant, English is an official (de facto or de jure) language
  defence/labour/organise dominant, English is not official
  Canadian defence/labour dominant, but with organize, etc.; English is one of two official languages
  defense/labor/organize dominant, English is de facto official
  defense/labor/organize dominant, English is not official

Many of the differences between American and British English date back to a time when spelling standards had not yet developed. For instance, some spellings seen as "American" today were once commonly used in Britain and some spellings seen as "British" were once commonly used in the United States. A "British standard" began to emerge following the 1755 publication of Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, and an "American standard" started following the work of Noah Webster and in particular his An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828.[1]

Webster's efforts at spelling reform were somewhat effective in his native country, resulting in certain well-known patterns of spelling differences between the American and British varieties of English. However, English-language spelling reform has rarely been adopted otherwise, and so modern English orthography varies somewhat between countries and is far from phonemic in any country.

Historical origins

Extract from the Orthography section of the first edition (1828) of Webster's "ADEL", which popularized the "American standard" spellings of -er (6); -or (7); the dropped -e (8); -or (10); -se (11); and the doubling of consonants with a suffix (15).
An 1814 American medical text showing British English spellings that were still in use ("tumours", "colour", "centres", etc.).

In the early 18th century, English spelling was inconsistent. These differences became noticeable after the publishing of influential dictionaries. Today's British English spellings mostly follow Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), while many American English spellings follow Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language ("ADEL", "Webster's Dictionary", 1828).[2]

Webster was a proponent of English spelling reform for reasons both philological and nationalistic. In A Companion to the American Revolution (2008), John Algeo notes: "it is often assumed that characteristically American spellings were invented by Noah Webster. He was very influential in popularizing certain spellings in America, but he did not originate them. Rather […] he chose already existing options such as center, color and check for the simplicity, analogy or etymology".[3] William Shakespeare's first folios, for example, used spellings like center and color as much as centre and colour.[4][5] Webster did attempt to introduce some reformed spellings, as did the Simplified Spelling Board in the early 20th century, but most were not adopted. In Britain, the influence of those who preferred the Norman (or Anglo-French) spellings of words proved to be decisive. Later spelling adjustments in the United Kingdom had little effect on today's American spellings and vice versa.

For the most part, the spelling systems of most Commonwealth countries and Ireland closely resemble the British system. In Canada, the spelling system can be said to follow both British and American forms,[6] and Canadians are somewhat more tolerant of foreign spellings when compared with other English-speaking nationalities.[7] Australian spelling has also strayed slightly from British spelling, with some American spellings incorporated as standard.[8] New Zealand spelling is almost identical to British spelling, except in the word fiord (instead of fjord). There is also an increasing use of macrons in words that originated in Māori and an unambiguous preference for -ise endings (see below).