Linguistic crepusculum?

If you are an English speaker, then you have available to you a usable vocabulary that is significantly larger than that of other languages. It is estimated that English has maybe 1 million words, which could be nearly five times that of French. Furthermore, it is thought that a new word is added every two hours or so. But how many of all these do we use?

Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In one piece of field work that was presented to me about eight years ago, it was estimated that many people’s average active vocabulary – the number of words he or she would use on a regular basis – may be as low as 1,500.

There is also some evidence that the English language’s capacity for the active use of synonyms, whereby a variety of words is regularly used with the same or a similar meaning, is being eroded. A distinguished person is probably now rarely described as eximious, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is probably not often called hamose, nor would be be described as an hallion. But that means we are depriving the language, and ourselves, of some wonderful opportunities. An illustration of this was provided by the American linguist Richard Lederer in his introduction to the Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate:

‘One of the happiest features of possessing a capacious vocabulary is the opportunity to insult your enemies with impunity.  While the maddening crowd gets mad with exhausted epithets such as ‘You rotten pig’ and ‘You dirty  bum,’ you can acerbate, deprecate, derogate, and excoriate your nemesis with a battalion of laser-precise pejoratives.  You can brand him or her a grandiloquent popinjay, venal pettifogger, nefarious miscreant, flagitious recidivist, sententious blatherskite, mawkish ditherer, arrant peculator, irascible misanthrope, hubristic narcissist, feckless sycophant, vituperative virago, vapid yahoo, eructative panjandrum, saturnine misanthrope, antediluvian troglodyte, maudlin poetaster, splenetic termagant, pernicious quidnunc, rancorous anchorite, perfidious mountebank, or irascible curmudgeon.’

So are we now reduced to a small selection of often four-letter dressed expletives? And is everything desirable just, well, ‘nice’?

If all this is so, what are the causes? What can be done to maintain English as a peculiarly rich language with a subtle and varied vocabulary? In particular, how can we harness the many opportunities now afforded by information technology to ensure that it is a platform for verbal sophistication? This is a cause worth fighting for.

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13 Comments on “Linguistic crepusculum?”

  1. Helen Finch Says:

    I couldn’t agree less! Though I would be interested to see the research that you refer to.

    Because it is so globalised, English is in constant contact with hundreds of other languages and millions of micro-communities, each with their own creolised, inflected, idiomatic, literary, vernacular and coded versions of English. The move from current to obsolete in English may be swift – but new word forms, lexical items and grammar forms are being created every day. They offer new varieties of sophistication and describe new realities in a fabulous way.

    I’m no sociolinguist, but I’m hoping that someone who is will comment to agree! And surely, no Dubliner like you can argue that English is lacking in rich varieties of personal insult…

    • Helen, if you sat on a bus in Dublin the only personal insults you would hear would consist of the same 2-3 words, beginning with ‘f’, ‘c’ and ‘w’. That’s it.

      • Helen Finch Says:

        It is of course possible that the 46A has a more florid style of insult! But seriously – sit in the Lord Edward for half an hour, and you’ll hear a rich repertory of banter and insult there.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    The narrative of the crepusculum is a narrative of nostalgia for an idealized Golden Age, one that I personally repudiate no matter whether itis applied to technology, HE or like in this case linguistic matters. I am no sociolinguist and yet while I agree that some English speakers do not make the most of the wealth of the language at their disposal English, as Helen has correctly pointed out, is a global language in constant evolution. Also I am not sure I would agree with the Lederer example quoted in the post, a sophisticated use of the language is admirable howevrr it is worth keeping in mind that the main purpose of language, any language, is to communicate, to understand the other and make oneself understood not to insult with impunity no matter how self-gratifying that might be for the sophisticated linguist

    • What perhaps has not been picked up in my post is the ambiguity of the title. Crepusculum can be either twilight or dawn. I was suggesting at the end that technology offers opportunities.

      • anna notaro Says:

        It is very true that the term crepusculum entails such ambiguity, however your readers should be forgiven if they picked up on the twilight rather than dawn due to the predominant decline narrative of the post and your reply to Helen’s comments…

  3. V.H Says:

    I can remember reading about such stats about 20 years ago. At the time I was never 100% sure what was being said for doesn’t it seem a bit like clicking one of those pedometers without saying why or where the destination.
    What I’d like to know is does the extra provide anything. Does it make my mind more flexible. Does it matter how you took in the words if it does make the mind more dexterous.
    What I can add, or at least, indicate in a general way. Well, when I think on a problem in Irish it can be easier to tease out. It presents itself without dross. It is also far easier to think in a poetic way with Irish, simply because the prefix&suffix’s puts in a foot automatically. That said, being good poetry, distinct from poetic is an entirely different matter.
    Or, take your reasonably intelligent person. They will have a grasp of another language like French, Italian or more likely Spanish. But if they are like me when watching a French/I/S film they will be shouting at the TV in frustration at the translation on the subs strap.
    How this matters to the volume of words I’m not so certain beyond the capacity to nuance a meaning in that ‘meeeeah ahhh nooooo, not really. It isn’t red I’m on about but crimson.’ Or an ideal language for shysters and nitpickers.
    I was reading lately about a movement towards using English without the Norman add-on’s. A sort of Beowulfian purists nirvana. Archaeologists, I believe, from East Anglia.
    I thought it was multiplicity you were on about btw with your headline not so much the gloaming.
    Hay Hoo

  4. no-name Says:

    With reference to the claim, “…the main purpose of language, any language, is to communicate…,” it should be noted that for most people on this planet, the primary purpose of language is for thought, and most people who use language for communication as well as for thinking engage in thought prior to each act of communication.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Well it would be ideal if anyone would do some thinking BEFORE uttering any words:) Seriously though I do not see such a sharp separation between the two stages as you seem to imply no-name the whole point of thinking is communicating such thoughts nd acting accordingly..if anything digital technology have the potential to enhance such possibilities dramatically thud reshaping both our thoughts and their dissemination

  5. no-name Says:

    The claim that “…the whole point of thinking is communicating ….” is in error and could be true only for exhibitionists and those who subscribe to inconsistent beliefs (whether celebrating inconsistency or not); the claim is manifestly wrong with respect to everyone else: most human beings have a very richly occupied mental capacity for thoughts they keep private and for thoughts they evaluate as “noise” if uttered (e.g. arithmetic reasoning, planning for personal hygiene, etc.).

    The point of thinking is thinking. Some who are able to think clearly are also able to solve problems, communicate effectively through language, and so on, exploiting incisive thoughts. However, communication does not require language (linguistic communication is only a species of communication), and excellent thinkers are not necessarily excellent communicators.

    It is true that digital technology has extended the potential audience for exhibitionists who believe that every thought must be communicated with the news about what they had for breakfast, but only the most vacant of mental exhibitionists have the possibility of achieving the goal of expressing all of their thoughts (much less having all of them understood). Conversely, those who act with apparent ambition to externalize all of their thoughts are often perceived as superficial and empty, and technology makes it possible for ever more people to perceive them that way.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Of course there is a very important personal/private dimension to ‘thinking’ however the focus in this discussion was on the communication aspect.As far as I am concerned thinking for thinking’s sake (just like learning, knowledge or art for their own sake) is only part of the story…there might be an element of exhibitionism in the desire to communicate one’s thought, an element occasionally amplified by contemporary digital technologies (a degree of exhibitionism of sort is also what I detected in the Lederer quote in the post) however I am a firm believer thst Aristotle got it right when he said that we are *social* the end it is ALL about communication and mediation..the pleasure inherent in *sharing* our thoughts with a fellow human being is too alluring to forego..

      • no-name Says:

        “Of course there is a very important personal/private dimension to ‘thinking’ however the focus in this discussion was on the communication aspect.”

        Yes, the purpose of thinking with the goal of communication is communication. Yes, the purpose of using language with the goal of communication is communication.

        Expressing observations of that sort will do much to shield you from the risk of being categorized as an excellent thinker who is not an excellent communicator.

        One could easily agree in advance to the truth of all other proper tautologies you are able to express, as well.

        If you perceive the focus of the discussion on this thread to be communication, it is not because this focus is entailed by what Ferdinand wrote, but because those are the associations that his text triggered for you, and what you subsequently focus on.  Ferdinand, of course, is free to clarify his intentions, or not. Regardless of his intentions when writing, his text and the subsequent responses are what they are (although Ferdinand’s regular readers might recall that you have a notion that texts spontaneously edit themselves from time to time, separate from readings of texts changing or language evolving (“there is nothing static about the lines of a poem”); therefore, it may be anticipated that you might dispute the truth of the (tautologous) claim that some set of already written “texts are what they are” and not what anyone would rather them be — one can anticipate the potential dispute without conceding existence of merit in arguments that you might offer to support that dispute).

        Ferdinand wrote, “Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words.” The only mention he made of communication was indirectly, with respect to “readers”. Notice that he attributes intelligence to his readers with the same figure of language that lets one believe that chickens lay eggs, even though roosters are chickens but do not lay eggs. Moreover, if one follows his pronouns one can see at least one reading consistent with the speculation that, in fact, some of his readers have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In any case, the explicit focus is on vocabulary, and this is not constrained by definition nor the laws of nature to the deployment of vocabulary in communication: if you cannot think it, you cannot say it with meaning, either.

        Of course, the trend in vocabulary reduction that Ferdinand indicates might exist is exactly the goal of Orwell’s fictional Newspeak, which, you might recall, is not merely about limiting communication, but more profoundly, limiting thought, with the goal of making some thoughts “literally unthinkable”.

        However, it is clear that curtailed reasoning can also be demonstrated independently of reduced vocabulary.

  6. Adam Says:

    Before I post something ill informed, I’d like to know the usage of the words described as sophisticated above. When the words you fear of dying entered the language, were they widely used? If not, it’s not much of a study in tthe decline in language, but a study in sociolinguistics.

    Personally, I don’t see why this is a terrible thing. I was raised by religious parents who forbade me to swear but at the same time tolerate words like shoot, fudge, darn, and heck. The choices we have between which insults to use are arbitrary as it all stems from intent. Certain profane words occupy the same semantic space and often the regular speaker of English will know they’re being insulted if they recognize the word or not. We all recognize context and can infer much more than we understand.

    (Please forgive my writing; posting from my iPad)

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