Kenneth Roy's article
last month about Theresa May's use of language – or misuse of it – sparked some thoughts. Our education system, when I was involved with it, was careful to bring out the subtleties in language, and the importance of precision in speaking and writing. I remember being told too that Scots speak some of the cleanest, most accurate English of any of the English-speaking peoples.
Much as the Inuit have 40 or 50 words for snow, the English language is full of words with degrees and shades of meaning. Except for snow, that is, the kind that falls from the sky. We have very few words for the white stuff. Most often we just seem able modify it with an adjective – wet, slushy, dry powder or something that would be imprecise to the Inuit.
Today's mass communications media reveals ever more clearly the fragility of our astonishing linguistic lexicon. Daily our email communications remind
us that the scope and range of the language, its intricacies and shades and
distinctions, are under attack.
One example is Microsoft's spell-check system. It constantly defaults to American English, whatever we do with the set-up. I used to spend a lot of time correcting it before I figured out how to turn the spell check off. But after doing without the spell check for a while I missed the daily joust with the auto-corrector, so I turned it back on.
The idea that some MBA graduate in Microsoft's complex in Washington, with a degree in computer sciences that had probably involved no English language studies at all, had been given the power to alter centuries of language development and usage was offensive. It bothered me to see that Microsoft and Apple and the other massive mass communication companies had assumed the authority to determine how we should and shouldn't spell words, or even use them.
Then I discovered the little tag 'add to dictionary'. Now, 'colour' in my letters doesn't change to 'color'. 'Cheque' doesn't become 'check'. 'Honour' doesn't change to 'honor', and so on.
It gets trickier when the meaning of words is usurped. If we're not paying attention Apple's predictive text will change what we mean to write beyond recognition. 'No idiot' was the reply to a simple question from a mother to
a daughter. The reply the daughter meant to send was 'No I don't'.
When 'Santa' becomes 'Satan', and 'Auckland' becomes 'Bucklame' – and defies all efforts at correction because New Zealand's capital city is not on the list of valid words in the Apple dictionary – then we know we've got problems. One desperate post a few years ago had this: 'I just updated my Mac Pro with the new Lion software. Now all of a sudden it tries to help me spell everything. I want to turn this off NOW! Please, please help me!'
I don't know if that 'add to dictionary' tag adds my spellings to the great Microsoft dictionary in Washington. I suspect it probably doesn't have an impact beyond the little dictionary that lives inside my desktop computer. But it does feel a wee bit subversive to correct the robotic march
of the global language police – although it's no more subversive than what the American communications empires have being doing to homogenise us for years.