Collateral damage of the devastating fire in Notre Dame cathedral has spread across the Channel to wreak havoc in England. The sceptered isle stood appalled as Prince Charles wrote a letter of commiseration to the Élysée Palace, rife with typically American spellings like “realize”, “agonizing” and “civilization”. A native English speaker would have used the letter “s” in place of “z”, and conspiracy theories broke out. Had the House of Windsor been infiltrated by a foreign power? Or was Meghan Markle handling her father-in-law’s air mail while on maternity leave?
Historically, the English have had an easy relationship with spelling. Their language is a salad bowl of autochthonous material, along with Roman, Nordic and Romance imports. One of the oldest English songs describes the loud song of the cuckoo as “lhude sing cuccu”, and it never bothered anyone. The trouble started when Dr Johnson systematised the vocabulary and schools fell in line, insisting on standard spellings. And so words ending with -ize and -ise were etched in stone. The very same grammatical ending was spelled different according to whether the parent word was derived directly from the Greco-Roman world or aged in Romance languages before crossing the Channel. And then those words fell into the hands of Noah Webster, America’s foremost dictionary-compiler, and he decided that -ize was less confusing and more American.
But now, English is our language. It belongs to the whole world and insular starchiness about spelling and grammar are simply ridiculous. Especially because the language has grown organically, in a disorderly sort of way. So organically that its native obsessions have travelled freely to foreign shores. Not many years ago, a society to put the “e” back in “judgment” (the favoured US spelling) was reported from America. It’s just the sort of language fundamentalism that the English are notorious for.