Sunday, 19 December 2010

Learned or learnt? Spelled or spelt? - A Google Ngram analysis

 Learned or learnt? Spelled or spelt? Burned or burnt? Which spelling do you use? If you speak American English, probably the ed version, if you speak British English, you probably just write what you feel like on the day. I know I use both, but I also know I need to be consistent in my forthcoming book, Teaching English Spelling. So time for some research and I found this extraordinary and very new tool from GoogleLabs (still in Beta) called Google Ngram. You write two or more (up to five) words or phrases into the Ngram search box and it searches a corpus of 500 billion words from 5.2 million books on Google Books. Then it turns out a graph of how often the word or phrase occurred in books in the years you have specified. You can search all English books, British English books, or American English books. Look, rather than explain, I'll show you what my Ngram results were:


British English 1800 - 2000: learnt (blue) vs learned (red)

We can see learned is more common but declining. The worrying thing is that we just seem to be talking about both of them less! Let's see if the same is happening in American English:

American English 1800 - 2000: learnt (blue) vs learned (red)

Ah, less of a decline there! And a very clear and consistent preference for the ed ending.

Now burnt and burned:

British English 1800 - 2000: burnt (blue) vs burned (red)

Oh, interesting! As the years have passed British English speakers have burned about the same but burnt a lot less. No idea why! And American English?


American English 1800 - 2000: burnt (blue) vs burned (red)

Oh, wow! Completely different. Preference swapped over mid-18th century. No coincidence I suppose that Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828.

What about my big question: spelt or spelled

British English 1800 - 2000: spelt (blue) vs spelled (red)

So traditionally spelt in British English but the American English has gained ground over the past 60 years and now spelled has taken over. But in American English:
American English 1800 - 2000: spelt (blue) vs spelled (red)

No competition!

So which should I use in my book? You may think spelled wins hands down, but I wonder if I should support the underdog? I'm planning to bring out a British version first, closely followed by an American version. Perhaps spelt needs a little boost from me in the British version, then spelled in the American one. But then again ...

Which will I do? There's only one way to find out ...send me your email address and I'll let you know when the book's out (soon)!

And which should you use? What do you think? Let me know in the comments. 
What do you think of Google Ngram?
How could you use it?

Johanna





22 comments:

  1. For me, "burned" is the verb and "burnt" is the description. I would have said - erroneously - that "spelt" was a type of flour, and "spelled" was the only correct past tense of "spell". On the other hand, I use "learnt" at least as often as "learned". I use it purposefully - it sounds exotic and old fashioned and Dickens and *extra*. I love extra words. I love the multiplicity of words in English (as long as I'm not being asked to explain it).

    I understand the argument for being consistent in but your book. I absolutely agree. But it makes me feel a tiny bit sad.

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  3. Wendell, don't worry I'll probably miss a few ... or I might just throw in a bit of inconsistency for you ;-)

    Yes, there is also the question of adjectives and I realise that might have skewed the Ngram figures a little. But I still think the pattern is clear.

    You're Canadian aren't you? It's always interesting to see where the Canadians follow BrE conventions and where AmE is preferred.

    Thanks for dropping by.
    Johanna

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    1. When I use the word "spelled" it is like "ensorcelled" or "enchanted"; there is some form of magic involved. When I "spell" a word, I look back to find that I have "spelt" it correctly. Unless I haven't, in which case it was misspelt.

      However, when The Wizard makes a mistake in his magic, the intended bit of sorcery may be said to have been misspelled.

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  4. I agree with the view that the -ed form represents the past verb and that the -t form represents the adjective. I, too, use both inconsistently but this has made me think about it.

    Learned [ˈlɜːnɪd] has, of course, the additional meaning of someone who is well taught or having profound knowledge.

    My home address is The Whitehouse, Burnt Street. It got its name from the local parish church which was partly destroyed by fire in the 19th century. It burned down but its subsequent state, like that of toast, was burnt.

    I am usually quite fussy about British over American spelling, although I acknowledge that the latter is simpler to understand and teach phonetically.

    Looking up 'spelt' (shorter OED) i see it is a noun and, indeed, a type of flour which stems from a 'primitive form of wheat now rarely grown'. So its useage may well have declined for that reason. But there is no use of 'spelt' as an adjective, unlike 'burnt'.

    I like to use 'spelt' (verb) but I should probably use 'spelled' for simplicity and consistency.

    It seems strange that you would fall into line by having a British and an American version of the book. One book could allow for both spellings, or at least teach one ('spelled') while acknowledging the other ('spelt').

    I guess, however, that you are teaching spelling as it is used now and not how it should be or once was. Difficult to turn back the clock once the practice has become widespread. Discuss?

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  5. Really interesting! 'Burnt' is here to stay, because the toast is burnt and it's nobody's fault (the toaster's faulty). But 'spelt'? "Do you need it spelled out for you?" is very much a 'passive verb', done by 'me' in 'your' presence, rather than a 'description'.
    What a fun app!

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  6. What about the British "Learned" - as in "the Learned Gentleman"? (Meaning scholarly or knowledgeable). I think the various uses will confuse the issue.

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  7. Very nice. I tried a pair of words that have been giving me trouble artifact/artefact and the results are perfect. I've been writing a lot recently in OneNote and Blogger which don't seem to give Br English spellchecking. Try it with "traveled" for instance, which changed in the US circa 1910, or "focussed" which ought not to be OK but is given as a clear alternative. Fascinating.

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  8. This is all fascinating. I agree with the distinction between burned and burnt. BTW, the spelling preference for burned swapped in the mid-19th century not the mid-18th. Just thought I'd point this out.
    I love the NGram analysis.
    Johanna, it's funny that you mention Canadians. I am Canadian, and yes, we're a confused bunch when it comes to spelling. Personally, I tend to follow BrE at times, other times AmE. English spelling is long overdue for a massive overhaul. As I'm an ESL teacher, I would love to see English spelling synchronized with its pronunciation.
    People are already doing this when they're texting. "C u later" and "where r u?" make perfect sense to me.
    The French, Germans, and Portuguese have national bodies that oversee spelling and revise it when necessary. Why can't this be done for English?

    Annette Simpson from British Columbia

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  9. Hi Annette
    Thanks for your comment. And thanks for that correction too! Actually to truly synchronise English spelling with sound (whose sound?) would be a massive overhaul I think which would knock out comprehension of an awful lot of literature. English spelling depends on etymology as much as sound and if you lost all of that you would lose lots of very useful semantic links between words. We'd end up with something like 'sine' (for sign) but 'signatcha'. And what about homophones, wouldn't it be confusing when reading if 'to', 'too' and 'two' were all spelled the same? I agree that it is happening naturally with texting etc, but I find this natural evolution much easier to stomach than imposed changes.

    Johanna

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  10. As a speaker of American English, I never use learnt or spelt (except as a type of grain). I do use burnt as an adjective, e.g. burnt toast or burnt offerings, but nowhere else.

    English spelling has multiple standards, but a book on teaching spelling doesn't necessarily need to have different versions. The principle of "both are correct, but teach and use the local norm" should apply.

    Most of the time usage is more of an issue than spelling. There are, of course, exceptions. My eyes stop dead in their tracks every time I see tyre or gaol for tire and jail.

    As far as the relationship between pronunciation and spelling goes, I once had a German acquaintance remark to me that English might as well be Chinese because the spelling often has very little to do with how the word sounds. He also said that English is the only language he knows where people use a dictionary to check spelling. Personally, I kind of like our idiosyncratic spelling.

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  11. Although Wendell mentioned spelt flour, nobody seems to have mentioned that there could be a large number of false positives that could be skewing the results. In fact spelt flour is probably the best example, as it only appears in the American corpus very recently, and not in the British one at all. Off the top of my head I can think of "burnt siena" (the paint colour), "learned gentleman" as examples from the others, and there must be countless others, which may or may not be in use at any one time.

    What it really comes down to is that unigrams taken out of context can sometimes fool you! I'm not sure how much these may be skewing these particular results, but it's something to watch out for!

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  12. For some reason, I think of "burned" as simple past tense, but "burnt" is the past participle. e.g Yesterday I burned some toast" but "Oh dear, I've burnt the toast". Used thus, it differentiates an action completed back in the past from a just-completed one, for example - few other languages (at least European ones) provide this degree of subtlety, you would have to add extra words to qualify it. OTOH, I think of "learnt" and "spelt" as correct, learned is only used in the sense of educated, and spelled is just bad grammar.
    I agree with Johanna's comments about English spelling and etymology, but it is undoubtedly true that some simplifications would make it much easier to learn. My wife is Serbian, which like German or Italian is phonetic - one sound per letter, always the same regardless of position in a word. She went nearly mad trying to get her head round the different ways to pronounce "ough" in words in English - rough, cough, bough, though, through, thorough, and so on. That's just one example of how un-phonetic English is today, there must be hundreds in total, and each one of us has to go through the same process of rote-learning them as children.

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  13. Thank you very much for this, I'm constantly being heckled by Americans for using 'spelt' and 'learnt' on International forums.

    By the way, surely the pronunciation of learnED gentleman is obvious by context? Secondly, why do you include the redundancy of "British" in British English, surely an original doesn't require it?

    For example, there is London, which does not require a further descriptive address, and London- Ontario which does. Or football, which as an original requires no further description, and American Football which clearly does.

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  14. Ultimately I don't think this one matters too much. On this topic I have read elsewhere 'when in doubt use the most elegant' and this is what I stick with for now!

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  15. Ha ha, I like that! But which do you think is most elegant, Megan?

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  16. The one I butt against is dreamed vs. dreamt. And then the drempt spelling somehow works its way into my mind.

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    1. Drempt is also found. It is in Middle English and still found in the South in the US ... I'm not sure about other regions.

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    2. I think there should be a third way: speld!

      I put a 'd' sound at the end of the word but the 'e' is not needed. Many great writers in the past hav noted either 'd ... storm'd (Charge of the Light Brigade) or added to the word ... adornd (The Faerie Queen). Thus, spelled should be either spell'd or speld.

      If you say 't' insted of 'd', then note 'spelt'.

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  17. Hey this is a great search tool... however there is room for some discrepancies! Spelt is also a noun: it's a type of European wheat. So say google searches a ton of books, there are bound to be a fair few noun "spelts," more so in British books, since it's a European wheat. That's going to skew the results somewhat. What do you think?

    Oh and as a Brit I'm with the traditional spelling all the way!

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  18. How about 'ycleped' or 'verklemped' ?!

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  19. This is a rather fascinating discussion (even if stretched over a long timeframe)! I can agree with many of the comments here, especially with "burnt" and "burned" being used as an adjective vs. being used as a verb. The only one of these word forms that ALWAYS bothers me is "learnt". Whenever I hear someone use "learnt", all I can think of is how UNLEARNED they sound!

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