Sulphur or Sulfur?

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Sulphur n (from the Oxford English Dictionary)


Forms: 4-7 sulphre, 5-7 sulphure, 5, 7, 9 (now U.S.) sulfur, 6-7 sulpher, (4 sou(l)fre, soulphre, 5 solfre, 6 sulfure, sulfre, sulphyr, 7 sulfer), 5- sulphur[a. AF. sulf(e)re (12th c.), OF. (mod.F.) soufre (from 13th c.) = Pr. solfre solpre, sulpre, It. solfo, zolfo, OSp. çufre, Pg. xofre (also, with Arabic article prefixed, OSp. açufre, Sp. azufre, Pg. enxofre)L. sulfur(em), sulphur(em), whence also Du. sulfer, solfer.] 

(The beginning of the entry for sulphur in the Oxford English Dictionary.  © Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.)


Two nations divided by a common language


Some science, of sorts, appeared on the front of one of the ‘quality’ broadsheet papers in the UK a few years ago. It concerned the spelling of the name of the element sulphur. The Royal Society of Chemistry ‘decided’ that ‘to avoid confusion’ all UK textbooks and examination papers should henceforth adopt what is thought of (by dictionary scholars, not just me) in the UK to be an American spelling, viz sulfur. (My spellchecker doesn’t like this.) Recently the same diktat also came from QCA, the regulatory authority for examinations in England, a diktat forwarded to those of us who have been involved in writing the new A-level syllabuses.

Two nations divided by a common language. Noah Webster (1758 - 1843) wrote his dictionary to define American English, a language for an emerging nation and a language which in some ways was deliberately different from British English. American spelling derives from this effort. It is not English spelling.

Now, I do not object in the slightest to American spelling in American publications any more than I do to Spanish ones in Spanish publications. I do object to the change that QCA and the RSC says ‘should’ be made, however, exactly for the same reason that I object to fetus (not foetus) and esophagus (cf oesophagus) in biological writing. It is the objection that some apparatchik, devoid of anything better to do, decides that ‘confusion will be eliminated’ if everyone, everywhere, uses sulfur. Who is confused? It is said that sulfur is 'international', whatever that means. I suppose that those millions of people who spell it 硫磺, θείο, zwavel, soufre, schwefel, zolfo, 硫黄, , enxôfre, сера, sulfuro, and differently in hundreds of other languages, might think that S is more international than sulfur. Never mind that many British students do not move out of a course-linked textbook for their A level career, and that that textbook is not American; or that a minuscule proportion of A-level students will run across an American-authored paper in the literature. By the time that sulfur impinges on their consciousness they will have served their apprenticeship and will no longer be confused. In reality they never were.

The defining dictionary for British English is the Oxford English Dictionary - a work of dazzling scholarship by a huge number of people over many decades. So I take my authority from that. Sulfur is not listed in the online version; if you type it in you get sulphur. Of course sulfur is given as an alternative (American) form, but the -ph- spelling has been around since at least the 14th century and has been universal since the spelling of British English became standardised several centuries ago.

The truly international method of communicating chemistry is through chemical equations. I have talked Chemistry with a Chinese who had no English, and we managed very well for around 20 minutes. For some reason another (or the same?) apparatchik decided that equations are too hard for UK schoolchildren to learn as a matter of course, and introduced the preposterous and oxymoronic ‘word equation’. The result is that there are far too many students at 16 who have studied sciences for years and who cannot write the most elementary formulae, let alone represent reactions by means of equations. Yet this is an important chemical ‘skill’, internationally far more important than the spelling of elemental names. But the Nomenclature Police are upon us with sulphur.

Aluminium next?

I have a suggestion to make. If you are a prospective chemistry student and really find the difference in spelling between sulphur and sulfur confusing – well, go and do something else. You are probably not suited to chemistry. What really appals me is the amount of time that teachers and others are liable to devote to this tripe. And I suppose I have fallen into that very trap.

There are seven towns in America named for element 16: in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nevada, Texas, Wyoming, Arkansas, and South Dakota. All of them named Sulphur.

 © JRG Beavon 2009

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