Thursday, April 23, 2009

On the English Language

Linguists are in agreement that the English language is the richest of all extant languages as regards vocabulary. One of the reasons lies in the history of English. Originally an offshoot of German, with the Norman invasion English found itself borrowing many words from the conqueror's Romance language families. Another reason is that English is quite egalitarian about borrowing words from here, there and everywhere. Thirdly, there is more than one "English," and speakers of one dialect of English frequently borrow words from other dialects of English.

There doesn't seem to be any great agreement on the number of words in English. Estimates run from about 300,000 to 1,000,000 words in the language. Part of the discrepancy in the numbers is due to what certain groups consider a unique word. The Oxford English Dictionary does not count as separate words those words with diverse meanings. They will, for instance, list the word "bear" only once as a word heading; however, under that heading will come many different definitions for that word. Also, if a word may be used as an adjective, as a noun, as a verb, as an adverb, there will still be only one counting of the word as a word. Other major dictionaries use a different formula. Some dictionaries and/or organizations whose business is the words of English will not include words that are considered as slang or jargon or technical terms. Others may not include in the English word count those scientific terms that derive from Latin, whether spelled identically to their Latin roots or not. Some words may be considered as archaic and are not included by some in the count of words in English today. Others will include these archaic words in their word count, or at least some of them, as those words can be found in printed material that is still available to us. Even if we split the difference from the lowest to the highest count we come up with about 500,000 words for English.

Those same people whose business it is to determine the number of words in the English language have also done some research on how many of those words are actually known or used by speakers of English. A distinction should be made here, which is not always done when the number of words in use is calculated, between our reading vocabularies and our spoken vocabularies. We recognize far more words in reading than we actually use in speaking. The figure usually given is that an educated English speaker knows 20,000 words, of which he/she will use about 2000 in any given week.

I would add that there is a third division of vocabulary that should be taken into consideration: our writing vocabulary. While we may not make use of the 20,000 words we know in writing, the number is still considerably higher than the 2000 of our spoken vocabulary. Or at least it should be. There are no guarantees today that this will be so.

Once upon a time the printed word was a true learning experience for the reader in so many ways. Not only was one exposed to new ideas, new concepts, new ways of looking at things, but that same reader was exposed to a plethora of vocabulary that would increase the reading vocabulary and the writing vocabulary. Today we are seeing what is, for me, a disturbing pattern. Writers are no longer reaching for the perfect word to say precisely what is meant. Writers are not choosing from among the riches available to them; they are mining on the surface instead of digging deeply for the pure ore that requires some effort to expose. Many will excuse the dearth of vocabulary in their writings by saying that they want to make sure that the reader understands exactly what is meant by their words. Horse manure. If they were truly worried about making sure that readers get exact meaning then they would be spending more time with a dictionary and a thesaurus, not less.

It used to be axiomatic that good writers were also avid readers. Through reading they would expand their vocabularies and thus enrich their own writing. But for this to remain true, reading material has to contain a rich vocabulary. If authors are going to write the way they speak, limiting themselves to their spoken vocabulary, then readers will have nothing of true value to carry away from their reading.

There are any number of issues of importance that are being discussed in Klal today. And there is also much confusion about just what is being said. Arguments ensue when nebulous statements leave themselves open to multiple interpretations. English is not being used with specificity in so many cases. Readers are being left with the job of interpreting vague statements, when such interpretation is even possible at all. Applying Shakespeare to much of what is in print about issues in Klal that deserve so much better from those who are writing about them, they are "...A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." We have a language rich beyond our imagination, and it is more than time for us to use it rather than abuse it.


Constant Reader said...

Great post.

Constant Reader said...

Come to think of it, my own comment reminds me of the Simpsons episode where homer visits the offices of Reader's Digest.

Homer: "Ooh, I love your magazine. My favorite section is "How To Increase Your Word Power." That thing is really, really...really...good."

Anonymous said...

Maybe, but Arabic is best for swearing! :-)