Depends on how well you want to keep to other chronologically correct spellings and/or mechanics. Part of the appeal of Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell is that the prose feels like it's from that time period. However, if your story feels like modern prose, you'll be fine just writing it sulfur.
[This message has been edited by Ray (edited March 25, 2007).]
Sorry - I didn't have time to invent any excellent prose that both 1) illustrated the problem with mixing spellings; and 2) was short. So I invented really bad prose with those desirable traits instead.
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I see what you were trying to illustrate. I guess I didn't take enough time to think it through. However, in my defense:
In my original post, I emphasized the word CAN. I wasn't suggesting that Alye had to.
I didn't think that the word sulfur/sulphur would come up that often. If it does, I concede that one or the other would be best.
That said, my original train of thought was:
You're not writing for a 1890s audience. Unless a character is reading the word I don't think it's necessary to use the old form. If you were writing by the proper terms of the eighteen-nineties, a lot of words--from insults to common nicknames--would have to be changed. And, the style of writing etiquette would drive many readers, including myself, away.
I have done some research in this area, having worked with a story themed in the eighteen-nineties. Not only were there a plethora of differences, many things (that you would not expect) were available. I.E. Electricity and Sci-Fi.
[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited March 26, 2007).]
As near as I can tell, InarticulateBabbler prefers that stories set in the 1890s be written with choice of words appropriate to the 2000s...I wouldn't recommend it. Nothing punctures the "suspension of disbelief" you're trying to create more than anachronisms of speech (except maybe outright errors).
I'd go with "ph" in sulpher here...I could think of three 1890s kind of things where the word (or a variant) might come up (a steel mill, patent medicines, a witch's cauldron), and, doubtless, there are many more.
(I'm working a story set in the late 1940s---it's a constant reminder to use words appropriate to the context. I've avoided slang---I haven't really done my homework here, and am just plowing ahead with the story. I leave a note to myself in boldface in the rough draft, to remind myself to check on this.)
Whatever you do, be consistent. Pick one spelling of sulfur and stay with it. I think the reader will forgive you for using the new spelling even if your story is set pre-1900s. I really doubt many people will notice. But use the earlier spelling if you want, just realize that there is a price for doing so. 1) people may think you screwed up the spelling. 2) people may see other words that had old spellings and wonder why you didn't change those too. To me, it seems a lot of extra work. No matter what time period your story is taking place, it is being written in the 21st century. Now, if you have a headline in your story that talks about sulfur, you should use the old spelling: "Sulphur-Murderer Strikes Again!"