Net spreads the word of America round the world

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The Independent Online

The change seemed to be a small one. British people buying the new version of Apple Computer's operating system, OS9, noticed the icon for deleting files wasn't called the Wastebasket anymore. It was called the Trash.

The change seemed to be a small one. British people buying the new version of Apple Computer's operating system, OS9, noticed the icon for deleting files wasn't called the Wastebasket anymore. It was called the Trash.

The result was uproar last week: for British users, accustomed to having an English name for something, this was seen as part of a creeping - or possibly rampant - change worldwide. Some, describing it as a "slap in the face", have said they will not buy the new version until Apple relents.

That looks unlikely - and not just on the computer front. Around the world, British spellings such as "colour" and "favour" are being overwhelmed by the American versions - color, favor and so on. American culture, exported in TV series, the Internet and the language of computers, is overwhelming "British English" so fast that it may not be a question of if, but when, our spellings and colloquial uses are forgotten.

John Simpson is familiar with the frustrations of the American invasion of British English. "Every time I spell-check a document, the computer's dictionary seems to assume that I'm in America, and I have to override it and put in the British spelling."

That is a common enough complaint; but for Mr Simpson it has a particular resonance. He is the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries, where he has worked for 23 years. "The odd thing is that there's actually only a small number of words which are different, such as travelling, where Americans drop the second 'l', or catalogue, where they drop the 'ue'," he said.

"Most of the differences were introduced consciously in 1828 by Noah Webster, who produced the first American dictionary. It was not long after the War of Independence, and he wanted to show that American English was different from British English - that it had thrown off the overlordship of Britain. He was very keen for American English to be completely respelt. It was a political act."

The spread of American culture has gone far beyond what even Webster might have imagined. The Independent's foreign correspondents, in big cities around the world, confirmed that in almost every case the form of English used is the American one. There have even been signs of that spread reaching the UK: a couple of years ago the MP Diane Abbott was surprised to find local children who thought the emergency number was 911 - because "call 911" is what characters in American dramas yell.

Trevor Millum, director of development for the National Association for the Teaching of English, thinks it is important to distinguish between spelling - which he thinks is comparatively unimportant - and colloquialism, which does matter.

"Whether we spell the word 'colour' or 'color' is really only interesting to linguists and pedants like myself. But quirks, like the choice between 'Trash' or 'Wastebasket', add to the richness of a language. 'Wastebasket' has meanings for us which differ from 'Trash' or 'Trashcan'. And we say pavement where Americans say sidewalk - but they call the road the pavement. It can make a difference just in terms of instruction."

Apple remains steadfast. Peter Lowe, head of product marketing, insisted that calling it "Trash" will make production of new versions cheaper and faster. Simon Jary, editor-in-chief of Macworld UK magazine, is unconvinced: "Apple changes the paper to A4 from the American sizes - but they couldn't change this? It doesn't ring true."

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