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Greene: Spell Check Test

04/09/12 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) Commentator and free-lance writer Stephanie Greene lives with her family on their farm in Windham County. Lately, she's been thinking about the ways in which we're manipulated by the very tools that are supposed to speed us on our 21st century way.

(Greene) It all started with writing the word mensch and having spell-check go into spasms.

"What?! That's right!" I cried to my accusing computer screen. Mensch is a fantastic word, Yiddish for a terrific, stand-up guy, a noble human being. It deserves to pass the spell-check test.

According to Program or be Programmed, by internet guru Douglas Rushkoff, much of the online dictionary and thesaurus programming is outsourced to non-native speakers of English. It's pretty tedious work, inputting all the words in the English language, and somewhere along the line, someone makes a decision about what is and is not standard American English. Try to use a word in an unusual way, and the computer will throw a similar tantrum.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare coined upwards of 500 words. How would programmers have dealt with him?

Now I know why the online thesaurus doesn't seem quite as rich and varied as the actual book I always have to run around the house trying to find.

But seriously, do we really want programmers to be our language police?

One problem is, that unlike France, with its colorfully uptight Academie Francaise, we do not have a governing body for American English, determining what words will and will not be allowed into our gorgeous language. And let's face it: The Academie has had to do some pretty fancy footwork to welcome in le hotdog and le businessman. But never mind: I admire their pluck in the face of the verbal torrent that is language.

When, as teenagers we tried to smuggle slang past teachers, we were directed to The Dictionary. If the word wasn't in it, we couldn't use the word. Period. Now it includes all sorts of four letter words, only they're coyly labeled nonstandard - a small, but poignant victory for teenaged rebels.

But language is always changing, and English is a great linguistic borrower. We've copped words from almost every other culture we've encountered. Pajama is a Hindi word, as is loot. Both coyote and tomato come from the Nahuatl, and boondock is an Australian Aboriginal word meaning mountain.

What's more, once we've swiped a word, spelling is rarely standardized, and each rule has at least ten exceptions. If you don't believe me, try pronouncing this one, spelled g-h-o-t-i. Take the gh combination found in enough, the o in women, and the ti from the suffix: t-i-o-n, pronounced ‘shun' and it's an alternative spelling for fish.

Good thing we absorbed all this when we were just three year old sponges and didn't know enough to complain!

Benjamin Lee Whorf described the way our consciousness is shaped by the words we use: with growing vocabulary comes more shading and subtlety of ideas, and a richer inner life.

Douglas Rushkoff suggests we all take up programming. But I say, Maybe not.

Tonight I'll read Shakespeare's Richard III to explore our wonderful language. But I need to find my thesaurus first.

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