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Why Do Australian Authors Spell Funny?

Any editor worth their weight in corrections knows that British and US spelling are both equally valid uses of English, and most writers know that authors are usually asked to format manuscripts using either British or US spelling.

This can be tough for Australian authors as not only do we have our own unique Aussie words, but we're also bombarded with a mix of British and US spelling from the time we learn to read. At school we’re often taught British spelling, but will daily encounter American spellings on television (whether it’s Sesame Street or CNN we’re watching), in books and on the internet.

In fact, many Australians couldn’t tell you whether ‘realisation’ or ‘realization’ was the American spelling, all they’d know is that they’d seen both, had probably used both, and that both seemed ‘right’. So, what’s the deal with the differences between British and American spelling? How did they come about?

Noah Webster, of Webster's Dictionary fame, can take much of the blame. When he wrote Webster's Dictionary, the first American dictionary, he was plagued with a revolutionary boner that inspired him to help America assert its cultural independence from Britain through language. Thus, each time Americans spell words such as "savour" without a "u", or "theater" with an "-er" instead of an "-re" at the end, they’re spitting in the eye of all those dirty, filthy colonising Brits and re-asserting their independence.

Australians, however, have a more complex relationship with their colonising mother country. Some Aussies get a stiffy waxing nostalgic over the days when Australia’s national anthem was God Save the Queen instead of Advance Australia Fair. Australian magazine the Australian Women’s Weekly takes the rabid royalist prize, with a royal story in every issue. It seems they’re under the illusion that Australian women all waited with baited breath to discover what colour monogramed undies Prince Philip wore that week, or to see the latest royal crotch-fruit photo (which will hopefully also be offered for sale on a tea towel). But snarky as some might get about being part of the Commonwealth, the fact remains that our coins have Queen Elizabeth on them and our dictionaries stick (for the most part) to British spelling.

However…

As I mentioned earlier, most Australians are avid consumers of US film, television, music, fiction, software and non-fiction publishing, and we even use the ‘internets’ when the kangaroos haven’t chewed through the broadband cable. So most of us have encountered (if not internalised) American English and are aware that a ‘thong’ is a g-string to Americans rather than a pair of flip-flops.

But…

Australians are also avid consumers of British film, television and fiction, and many Australians will tell you that they feel culturally closer to the Brits than the Yanks. And while that may not be the case for all Australians, most are fluent in American, British and Australian varieties of English. So while a Brit may have no idea what to sit ‘catty corner’ means, and an American may not understand the term ‘bollocks’, and neither could tell you what a ‘bogan’ was, an Aussie (this one, anyway) understands all three terms.

What does this handle on different varieties of English mean for Aussie authors? Usually what it means is that if they want to publish with an American publisher, they must purge their manuscript of British and Australian words, spelling and phrases. Or, if they want to publish with a British publisher, lose the Australianisms and Americanisms. Oh, yes, it sounds easy but it ain’t.

And if you’re in doubt that Australians have their own unique way of phrasing and spelling things, check out the Macquarie Dictionary site (yes, it’s a dictionary of Australian English) or the news story here which the Beanie Queen drew my attention to. See some excerpts below.

QUOTE: “Holy tomorrow. How good? Bloody, you beauty.”

TRANSLATION: “Excellent.”

QUOTE: “I’m gonna have a truckload of pudding and uh, old mum’s good on the cook too so, dad’s got the tucker ready over there and mum and dad are gonna work together and form a massive feed and err, I’m gonna come in and dominate it.”

TRANSLATION: “I will eat a large volume of pudding. Mother is competent at the culinary art as well. Father has the food ready over there; the two of them shall combine their talents to create a meal of sufficiently impressive proportions, and then I shall devour it.”

QUOTE: “I just saw the line, pinned me ears back and ended up bagging a bit of meat in the corner there, which was tops!”

TRANSLATION: “I caught sight of the try line, accelerated to the very limit of my ability and managed to score, which was pleasing.”

QUOTE: “The boys were on it like seagulls at a tip.”

TRANSLATION: “My colleagues displayed exceptional enthusiasm.”

I also asked my fellow ninjas (all Australian) about their stance on the spelling issue and here’s what they had to say:

Lily Malone: I remember finding it funny when a beta reader asked me if I wanted to keep the Australian spelling in my Australian book. Or did I want to adopt US spelling? I was a bit WTF? It's an Australian book, with Australian characters. Of course I want Aussie spelling. I want Aussie slang too, and Aussie terms.

It never occurred to me that in Fairway To Heaven, which has a toddler who requires regular 'nappy' changing, that I should call the nappy a ‘diaper’. However, I did sometimes change a word to US word because they weren't a big deal to me and I had an easy alternative. For example, I had lots of mentions of 'the kitchen bench' and then I found out that if you say 'bench' to an American, they'd be thinking of a seat, not what they'd refer to as a 'kitchen counter' or 'counter-top'.

One word I definitely won't change is ‘arse’ to ‘ass’. Because, to me, one is a delectable part of the male or female anatomy, and the other is a squat horse that I'd call a donkey. But on the other hand, I’ve stopped using 'bum' for that same piece of male or female anatomy, and substituted it with ‘butt’ or ‘backside’ because the American context of 'bum' is a homeless person with no job who spends his/her nights in a cardboard box with a bottle of wine.

EE Carter: I blame Benjamin Franklin. Oh yes I do. He became so fixated on standardising English he wanted to simplify the alphabet to 20 characters! I write in English English. I get away with it, I think, because I write English-based historicals but to quote Carey Ewles from Robin Hood Men In Tights: "Unlike some Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent"! But if my American publisher wanted me to change it, then I’d just consider it a prerogative of house style. One thing which does make me giggle is changing storey (as in ‘a two-storey house’ to 'story'). A two-story house seems to me to be a home with only two books in it, and that's sad.

Sandra Antonelli: I like the difference. It's like having all the various accents and dialects of the English language in print form. Sort of. I went to an international school with kids from Germany, France, Italy, England and the US. In English class we learned (or learnt if you prefer) UK and US spelling. When I moved to the US for high school I had to educate my teachers that my UK spellings were not ‘wrong’, but I also had to learn to be consistent and use one form of spelling. When I write stories, I use the language setting in Tools on Word to choose the form of English (Australian, Canadian, British or US) I want to use, and that lets me know if I've misspelled color as colour etc. I got ripped by a review on Goodreads because my first book was published with British spelling (as per the publisher’s style), even though it has a US setting and I wrote it with US spelling. However, that has changed. The second book, set in the same place as the first, was allowed to keep its US spelling. As another example of spelling variety, in New Mexico green chilli is green ‘chile’.

Cate Ellink: I'm old-fashioned about my spelling. I like my sulphur with a 'ph' not an 'f'. I dislike the number of 'z's appearing in words like realise and organise. I like my colour to have a 'u'. While these are my preferences, I realise others are different and I make allowances for that. However, it irks me that others can't pay attention to cultural differences and assume we're wrong when we use our (Australian) spelling. ‘Each to their own’ is a good motto to live by!