20 July 2008

You say tomayto, I say tomahto...

TTMF comments on the use of speciality/specialty: I think that I shall continue to use specialty. To my ear, speciality sounds wrong. Why add a vowel and syllable that isn't necessary?

This is something that JSBlog would do justice to; me, I just opened my mouth (or, more accurately, dropped my fingers on the keyboard) and the following is a slightly tidied up version of three comments left at the site.

Having lived with "speciality" all my life, I feel the other way around. For what it's worth, I've observed "specialty" to be overwhelmingly more common in the US, "speciality" equally predominant in the UK. I noticed, in writing this, that my UK-localised Firefox spelling checker marks "specialty" as an error.

Jim's gut reaction, that "speciality" is wrong because it involves adding an extra letter, is very much in line with USAmerican norms - not a criticism, just a linguistic observation. The drive in USAmerican English has always been a pragmatic process of simplification, streamlining, removal of linguistic fossils, phoneticisation, movement toward practicality, while UK English adheres more to the European liking for historical continuity and evolutionary audit trails.

So, for instance, USAmericans favour elimination of the unnecessary "u" in words such as colo[u]r and neighbo[u]r, the phonetic reversal of "re" into "er" in words like centre/center or metre/metre. UK spellings retain, instead, the linguistic origin of all those words in French.

It's an expression of wider cultural perceptions which underpin our different (complementary) strengths and weaknesses on both sides. However much Americans may love Europe's architectural heritage they feel no instinct to retain any of their own, preferring to let us lie in the grass in the fields of the past while they redevelop anything older than living memory in the interest of progress to the future.

I think it likely that, without this pragmatic approach to language, the US would not have leapfrogged the mass illiteracy of a young pioneer society to become the most advanced on Earth - nor taken Europe with it on the journey. Conversely, without European maintenance of roots as a cultural anchor the US would quite possibly not have maintained the focus to come so far themselves.

Or, equally possibly, I'm talking complete and utter bollocks, lost in the mindweeds beyond hope of rescue...

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