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The Incredible Shrinking Vocabulary

The current Oxford English Dictionary, most recently revised in the 1980s, contains over 500,000 definitions. Itís claimed that the average college-educated English speaker typically has a working vocabulary of more than 100,000 words.

They must have been talking about a previous era of college graduates, as many of the newer ones Iíve worked with seem to get by with a few orders of magnitude less than that number. Perhaps itís a sign of ongoing biological evolution. Language centers in the brain are shrinking beyond all sense of reasonable proportion, to the diminished size needed to minimally comprehend rap music lyrics.

In 1930, C. K. Ogden (in collaboration with I. A. Richards) devised an ultra-truncated version of English. It consisted of just 850 words that could be learned in a few months and used to say anything. He called it Basic English (BE). It was demonstrated that practically anything could be said with these few words Ė even novels and scientific papers were written in BE. It never caught on. Perhaps to many people living in that era, it sounded too much like Newspeak, the government-mandated language in George Orwellís ominous, anti-totalitarian novel 1984. And BE didnít contain any idioms, which form the true heart and soul of any language.

It appears that human vocabularies are marching steadily toward the same place that Prof. Ogden wanted to go. A modern form of "Basic English" seems to be spontaneously creating itself as we speak. It will be comprised entirely of idioms, expletives, grunts and a few unintelligible conjunctions.

I once had a sizeable vocabulary, bolstered over the years by much reading on many different subjects, and by a good deal of technical writing at my job. But now, words that I once clutched dearly and proudly to my bosom are leaking away from me like spinal fluid draining through a sieve. My mental sponge seems to be calcifying relentlessly, day by day.

In my case, this isnít the onset of Alzheimerís disease; itís simply one of those unsolicited reminders from Mother Nature that Iíve outlived any useful biological purpose.  Like a cat scratching lightly at the door in the middle of the night, Her quiet importuning has become very bothersome. Itís a give-and-take relationship, though: I give up words and memories, and I take new aches and pains in return. I can deal with the aches and pains. I only wish I could choose the damned words I have to give up.  Like importune.  Why not take that one?

Why do I keep words that I donít really need, like syzygy and defenestrate, and have to give up the needful ones, like my computer passwords, the names of my fellow workers, or the names of common objects or actions? I certainly donít need to retain the word "aegis" when I can always say "sponsorship". Who needs the word "inculcate" when they can use "teach", "instruct", "impress upon" or "indoctrinate"? Unfortunately, itís the simpler words that seem to take flight when I try to retrieve them from their cozy gray pigeonholes upstairs. Sometimes Iím forced to dredge up an esoteric synonym, with the predictable result that people often donít have a clue as to what I just said. Or, if they do, they consider me to be snobbish and condescending. Well, OK, I suppose I can be a bit snobbish at timesÖ

As my own vocabulary continues to ebb, perhaps my life will take on a simpler, more uncluttered aspect. After all, the only thing words really do is express particular feelings -- sensations, observations, mental states. You can survive without nouns, so long as you can point. The loss of verbs would simply lead to a more passive mode of living. But the feelings, ah, the feelings are there whether you can pin a name on them or not. And in the final analysis, of all those 500,000 English words, there are really only three of them that are worth knowing:

    • Love,
    • Honor,
    • Ö

Wait -- itíll come to me, just give me a minuteÖ

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Image at top Copyright G. W. Mortensen

 

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