On waning vocabularies

I recently came across a column in the Globe and Mail which describes two attitudes toward language. “Logophiles” love words for their own sake — the more words, the better, even if some words are rather difficult to work into a conversation.

“Linguists”, on the other hand — the word experts — tend to think we’re better off with fewer words.

The empress of the linguists in Canada is Katherine Barber, the editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, where she has overseen the classification of Canadian English for 15 years. …

The most recent edition added 5,000 words, or new senses of old words. Bling is there, and brachytherapy (a form of cancer radiotherapy where a radioactive source is implanted next to a tumour), “or the new sense of cougar, of older women chasing after younger men.”

Mistress Barber and her fellow lexicographers let a word marinate for five years before it gets the nod to be in the dictionary. “You just have to make a decision for your users, on whether they’re going to run across it or not.”

But is that what a dictionary is for — to teach you words you are likely to run across? …

“We lexicographers just feel there are too damn many words in the language,” Ms. Barber says — understandably, since she’s the one who has to dust them off. She wants to keep the housekeeping manageable, which is why “you need different dictionaries for different purposes. The worst thing you can do in the company of a lexicographer is to say, ‘Look in the dictionary’ — because what you should be saying is, ‘Look in a dictionary.’ “

Too damned many words? That’s a linguist’s perspective!

Thomas Delworth, on the other hand, is a logophile. He used to be the provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

“I really do despair, as an old man, about the fate of the language,” he says. “It has become very vulgarized.”

In his first week as the provost of Trinity College in 1996, he was astonished by the number of times and the number of ways the F-word rang out across the quadrangle of the college, as verb and noun and gerund and injunction and expletive, as insult and compliment. He objected, publicly.

“It’s simply inconsistent with the purpose of the college,” he says. “The use of the mind, I mean.” …

Robert Brustein, the playwright, critic and founding director of the American Repertory Theatre, who also teaches English at Harvard, sees such damage everywhere.

“I have found a deterioration in the capacity of students to use language,” Mr. Brustein says. “The capacity to articulate what’s in your mind has declined.”

I like these two quotes because they both make a connection between vocabulary and the mind.

I know some people get very silly about the ongoing evolution of the English language. They don’t like it when words drift:  when the meaning of a word changes ("suffer [i.e. let] little children to come unto me") or when nouns get “verbed” (e.g. to be tasked with).

Folks who worry about such changes are getting their knickers into knots over nothing. It’s one of the great strengths of the English language that it is so malleable.

But being able to express what’s in your mind — that matters. Or being able to think it in the first place! Because sometimes, if you lack the vocabulary, you can’t even think the thought.

Here’s an example:  decathexis. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross noticed that dying people increasingly withdraw into themselves as death draws nearer. They begin to let go, to disengage from the world. Things that used to bring them pleasure don’t anymore. Loved ones feel less loved — as if they are losing the person while the person is still alive. Of course, this can be very painful; but it also prepares the loved ones incrementally for the final separation.

It’s an big concept, expressed in a single word. Knowing the word equips you to understand and cope with the experience some day.

What happens, then, as our vocabulary dwindles? Isn’t there a corresponding diminution of our thought life, too?


17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. MaryP
    Sep 07, 2007 @ 07:48:07

    Like, um, yeah. Duh.


  2. 49erDweet
    Sep 07, 2007 @ 09:30:58

    In addition to Mary P’s apt comment, I’m chuckling ot the idiotic mindset that tells lexicographers they might actually “control” which words are put into usage, or not. Somewhat akin to oats “telling” horses where to deposit their spent remains on the bridal trail.



  3. JewishAtheist
    Sep 07, 2007 @ 14:43:32

    I don’t buy it. The word “fuck” does not subtract from one’s vocabulary, nor do you need to be aware of a word like decathexis to understand the concept behind it. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does not appear to be true, as far as I can tell. Furthermore, I guarantee you that every generation since the invention of writing has bemoaned the next generation’s inability to write properly.

    In my view, there are two important aspects to vocabulary. The first, and by far the more important of the two, is that people can understand what the hell you’re writing. (Note, btw, that “the hell” serves mostly as punctuation in that sentence, but has not as of yet removed any of the vocab words I memorized before the SAT from my memory, as far as I know.) This is well-served by narrow vocabularies. (I say “vocabularies” because different domains have different shared vocabularies, mostly because it would take too damn long (there’s that useless word again) to talk about a specific field using a generalist’s vocabulary.

    The second aspect of vocabulary is style. Style can be shallow or it can be deep. When it’s deep, the style adds something to the meaning of the words. Larger vocabularies give us more flexibility in both reading and writing stylistically.

    I think the best solution is to use a constrained vocabulary when the intent is merely to deliver an explicit communication and a more broad one when you need the words to serve double duty as meaning and and style.


  4. JewishAtheist
    Sep 07, 2007 @ 14:46:42

    If you can do both at the same time, of course, all the better.


  5. mike (a.k.a snaars)
    Sep 07, 2007 @ 19:58:26

    Werds gud. Gud werds. Like dem. But not bigguns.


  6. Stephen
    Sep 08, 2007 @ 08:21:57

    • MaryP:

    • 49er:

    • Jewish Atheist:
    The word “fuck” does not subtract from one’s vocabulary, nor do you need to be aware of a word like decathexis to understand the concept behind it.

    Relying on the word “fuck” doesn’t directly subtract from your vocabulary, no. Someone in the article makes the point that we have no difficulty switching from one vocabulary to another depending on the social context.

    But indirectly? I think we gain proficiency, in language as in any other sphere of activity, by practice. If we lazily rely on “fuck” as our all-purpose adjective, intensifier, insult, compliment, etc., we are allowing other words to go unused. (At least in that social setting, we are.) So I think the prevost had a valid objection: our society is allowing its verbal muscles to atrophy to an alarming extent.

    Have you ever read an excerpt from the diary of an thirteen-year-old girl during the Victorian era? Their eloquence is just staggering, beyond that of many university students today. Even if there were other, less educated Victorian folks who couldn’t read or write at all.

    However, despite what I’ve said in this post, I’m not deeply committed to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In fact, I haven’t studied it out, partly because it always seemed rather counterintuitive to me.

    We manifestly do think about things for which we don’t have a specific word. For example, a Canadian radio host (Peter Gzowski) once held a contest to generate a new, explicitly Canadian, word. The entry that captured my imagination was a word for the mass of ice that builds up behind the tire of your car during those long Canadian winters.

    Canadian drivers are all familiar with the need to kick off this mass of ice at intervals — we all do it. But we don’t have a word for it. And evidently we still don’t because I can’t remember what word was suggested for it!

    I don’t know what Sapir and Whorf would say about that scenario. Obviously we do have the language to think about the activity, and carry it out, even if it doesn’t reduce to a single word. But I’m not sure that invalidates their theory.

    I chose “decathexis” as an example because I don’t know if we do think about it clearly without having been introduced to the word. Yes, we can observe that grandad doesn’t enjoy his food as much as he used to. But when grandad retreats emotionally, and starts responding with short, dismissive comments when we try to make conversation with him — people don’t know how to take it. They feel rejected and hurt; they don’t understand that grandad is just coming to terms with the reality of his own impending death. He won’t be taking us with him, and our lives will go on without him after he’s gone, and he’s beginning to let go even while he’s still alive.

    That is a very poignant scenario, and I think it is poorly understood by the very people who are in the midst of it. In a sense they’re thinking about it, but they aren’t comprehending it. Probably there’s a counsellor somewhere in the picture, working through the scenario with them, explaining the concept. By adding the word “decathexis” to their vocabulary, the counsellor can take them a long way toward understanding grandad’s behaviour and accepting it as his way of dealing with a concrete, inescapable reality.

    To that extent, I think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has merit. There are scenarios where a lack of vocabulary diminishes our ability to think comprehendingly about the world.

    • Snaars:
    C’mon, you like big “werds” just fine! Epistemology! Phenomenology! Wittgenstein!


  7. JewishAtheist
    Sep 08, 2007 @ 19:35:11

    Have you ever read an excerpt from the diary of an thirteen-year-old girl during the Victorian era? Their eloquence is just staggering, beyond that of many university students today. Even if there were other, less educated Victorian folks who couldn’t read or write at all.

    Any thirteen-year-old girl who kept a diary in the Victorian Era was probably absurdly well-educated. I’m sure if you were to read the diaries of today’s most gifted and talented thirteen year olds, they’d read similarly.

    I think “decathexis” is perhaps not a good example, because it’s really a condition, like postpartum depression. So it’s not the word that’s important but the knowledge that the condition even exists that matters. Focusing on the word is missing the point a bit, I think.


  8. Jack
    Sep 09, 2007 @ 00:36:16

    I am a big fan of language and words in particular. I would be an advocate of having a greater selection to choose from than a smaller one. There are many advantages to be had from being able to select from a variety of words than having to rely upon just a few.


  9. juggling mother
    Sep 10, 2007 @ 15:45:57

    I think I remember some interesting lexicographical (is that the right word? a word?) studies on “primitive” tribes where they did not understand whole concepts because they had no words for them. I can’t rememeber exact details, but wil endeavour to look it up if I find the time:-) still, I definitely remember the group that took Shakespeare accross the world, and played Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet in everything from Swahili to gangland-speak. Apparently the fundemental human emotions of greed, ambition, love, betrayal etc were uinderstood by everyone.

    I agree that concepts need words, and that understanding only comes if you can explain. And that language is constantly evolving and no dictionary editor can control that:-) I do not agree that the use of one word by students means they do not have other words. Just that students like to be part of the pack:-)


  10. juggling mother
    Sep 10, 2007 @ 15:52:50

    Of course, we here in England, feel that English is not only the best language (and that all “proper” people should and could speak it nicely (in it’s original meaning) if they just tried hard enough), but we even spend our time telling each other about words that may have been forgotten: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/wordhunt/ and how to use those words correctly and with style: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/features/fullstops/

    Oh, and that you stupid colonials are all wrong, all the time:-)


  11. Stephen
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 06:05:44

    • Juggling Mother:
    You’ll get no argument from me: nobody has a facility with English equal to that of you Brits.

    Remember that at least some of us colonials know how to correctly spell words like “colour”, “centre”, “practise” (the verb), “dialogue”, “counsellor”, “grey”, and “sceptic”. (All of these words are underlined in red on my computer — the nerve!)

    On the other hand, we all think you’re nuts with respect to “aeroplane”.


  12. juggling mother
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 13:47:35

    But we SAY it air-ro-plane so we are right and you are wrong. Ditto re cookies, pants, sidewalks, daipers, garbage, and all those other words you made up for no good reason:-)

    Actually aero plane means ship of the air. it has the same root as aerodynamics and aeronautics. Airplane is quite defintiely the dumbing down of the language and is one I fight hard against.

    Does your computer not have an “English (Canadian)” setting? I reset all mine to “English (UK)” to ensure I do not get stupid red lines telling me to change all my s’s to z’s etc.


  13. 49erDweet
    Sep 13, 2007 @ 22:24:44

    I don’t know, Stephen, just how much credence do we colonials need to give to the Brits and Aussies who don’t even know which is the proper side of the road upon which to drive? And then asking for extra letters in perfectly useful words? Seems rather suspect to me.


  14. Stephen
    Sep 14, 2007 @ 06:52:48

    Quite so! And they fail to appreciate the superiority of coffee over tea, too!


  15. juggling mother
    Sep 14, 2007 @ 14:36:57

    Give me coffee any day – English tea tastes like mud, although I used to enjoy a decent green tea when living in hot countries that actually grew it! The ability to add alcohol into coffee has nothing to do with my preference, obviously…..


  16. juggling mother
    Sep 24, 2007 @ 14:51:27

    Just found this knocking around the web for your delictation:-)

    take it you already know
    of tough and bough and cough and dough.
    Others may stumble, but not you,
    On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
    Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
    To learn of less familiar traps.

    Beware of heard, a dreadful word
    That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
    And dead-it’s said like bed, not bead.
    For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
    Watch out for meat and great and threat.
    They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

    A moth is not a moth in mother,
    Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
    And here is not a match for there,
    Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
    And then there’s dose and rose and lose
    Just look them up–and goose and choose.
    And cork and work and card and ward.
    And font and front and word and sword.
    And do and go, then thwart and cart.
    Come, come I’ve hardly made a start.

    A dreadful language? Man alive,
    I’d mastered it when I was five!

    And a question for you (this is well known in the UK so no British entrants allowed).

    What does GHOTI spell?


  17. Stephen
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 09:14:38

    Thanks for that comment, Mrs. A. I’m going to share it with my French colleagues, or at least those who struggle with English.

    I’ve seen the word “GHOTI” before, but I forget the punchline. Is it “fish”? I vaguely remember:

    • GH = F as in “laugh”;
    • TI = SH as in “information”.

    But I forget how “O” = “I”.


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