A Love of Words

I just finished reading, with my composition class, a chapter in Ralph Fletcher’s book, What a Writer Needs, titled “A Love of Words.” In it, Fletcher talks about the power that language has with our memories and our psyches; how the utterance of a single word can bring back entire chunks of his childhood and how he saves really great words in reserve just hoping for an opportunity to use them later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language and vocabulary as I try to guide my students through the second half of this semester, and I’ve come to see that it’s far more work than I imagined it would be to teach kids to really value – indeed, to treasure – language.

For most of my students, their language serves the singular purpose of getting their ideas across. They don’t want to learn new words because they believe that the words they already have are sufficient to their purposes. They don’t relish new and unusual words; they don’t seek out new ways to say something; they don’t recognize that learning a new word could be the equivalent of learning a new concept, or of seeing something old in a new and exciting way.

Their reluctance to even dip their toes in the ocean of words that we have available to us makes me a little sad for them. Fletcher, in his chapter, tells us that “our English language contains about 490.000 words, along with another 300,000 technical terms. No one, of course, not even the great writers, can utilize such richness. It has been said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of around 33,000 words. In 1945, the average American student between the ages of six and fourteen had a written vocabulary of about 25,000 words. Today, that vocabulary has shrunk to about 10,000 words.”  I wonder: does this shrinking vocabulary also indicate a diminished ability to think?  If it is true that we have – or, at least, that we use – fewer words, is it also true that we are less able to express complex ideas and, in true Orwellian, 1984 form, that our inability to express ideas means that we can no longer have them?

As I read, I also wondered what my vocabulary’s quantity would be. Of course, I’m not sure there’s any real way to measure such things – I suspect that Fletcher’s statistics were the best guesses of linguists and dictionary-writers – but I am still fascinated by the idea that it is a quantifiable thing. More to the point, I wonder how well I utilize the vocabulary I DO have.

As an exercise I invited my students to write their favorite words on the board. I tried to seed the cloud with expedient, recalcitrant, and particular. One student told me that he couldn’t put his favorite word on the board, recognizing that it was inappropriate for the college classroom. My best reader in the class declined my offer, claiming that she didn’t have any favorite words and only really appreciates the words she finds when she sees them in books. The two other kids who showed up today simply sat sullenly in their seats.

The wind got sucked right out of my sails. Regardless, I went back to the board and added devotion, compassion, intergenerational and obstinate to the list. They may not have a full appreciation for the beauty and power of their language, but I do.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “A Love of Words

  1. I wonder if there’s a program out there into which you could plug your URL and it’d give you the “unique” word count. So the number of different words that you’ve used over the lifetime of the blog.

    Anybody know of something like that?

  2. “I wonder: does this shrinking vocabulary also indicate a diminished ability to think? If it is true that we have – or, at least, that we use – fewer words, is it also true that we are less able to express complex ideas and, in true Orwellian, 1984 form, that our inability to express ideas means that we can no longer have them?”

    Absolutely not. English has a larger vocabulary than other languages: does this mean that English speakers are better at thinking than speakers of those other languages? Different languages express concepts in different ways. A language might use a single word where English uses a phrase; for instance French connaître and savoir are both translated as “to know”, but the first indicates knowledge from recognition, and the second indicates knowledge from understanding. So are French speakers better at knowing because they have twice as many words?

    Surely it makes much more sense to suppose that if we need to express a concept, we’ll find a way of doing it, no matter what language we speak or how many words we need to use.

    AIUI, “1984” postulated a society where certain words were banned in the hopes that it would prevent people from expressing those concepts. But it didn’t work.

  3. Oh yeah… and when a language doesn’t have a single word for a concept, it used periphrasis. We use periphrasis to convey the sense of “past” or “future”: I have gone, I will go. We don’t have a single lexical item to mean “plural second person” as opposed to “singular second person” so we use constructions like “you guys” or “all of you”. There is no reason why we need to encode every concept in a single lexical item. Language is more than just a bunch of words.

  4. Kizz,

    I know of this: http://www.criticsrant.com/bb/reading_level.aspx

    …but I am not sure if this link is what you mean. I am not sure if it measures the totality of the blog either. It rates my blog usually from high school to undergrad, depending on the last post.

  5. Eddie, I’m ALWAYS disappointed by the ratings I get from that site. My current listing is high school for this blog. Sigh. I’m shooting for AT LEAST undergrad, you know?

    John, I see what you’re saying, but I’m not 100% sure I don’t believe that a lack of words doesn’t impede our ability to think.

    I have to admit that I’ve not yet gotten off my proverbial ass to check out Benjamin Whorf, but from what I understand of his theories (and please, correct me if I’m wrong), language is integral to how well we can think. I know, personally, that I was able to think differently when I was approaching fluency in ASL; concepts took on different flavors and nuances when “spoken” in another language. There’s something to that, I think, but I don’t quite have the language to express it. In a way, that proves your point, John, but I also think it speaks to mine in that an inexpressible idea is, at least in this case, an incomplete one….

  6. The strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that what one thinks is determined by ones language. So if the language has no future tense, the speakers have no concept of the future.

    A more imo reasonable view is that language and thought might influence each other, but the question is to what degree and how. For instance, a society that places value on horses might have a lot of words for horse-related items. It seems that for every study showing how the presence or absence of colour terms might influence how we perceive colours, there is a study showing that there is no relationship between colour terms and colour perception.

    I have heard that people who learn a second language say that they think differently when they speak the second language. But they don’t have to learn how to think all over again.

  7. This is fascinating. I teach a course called Programming Languages. It is a high-level, theory course in CS. In it, we explore constructs that are designed into different languages. My students are just as reluctant to explore those new languages and their ways of expressing problem solutions as yours seem to be with vocabulary.

  8. Words seem to get short shrift in some quarters these days. I understand completely how you felt after your aborted exercise. I would have been deflated too.

    Soldier on, Mrs. Chili! You and I both know that a well turned phrase can delight the heart and feed the soul for days. I live by words–and so do you!
    :-)

  9. ‘defenestrate’ and ‘bindlestiff’ are two of my favorite words. probably because they sound awesome, but are actually completely useless. :-P

  10. M-Dawg

    Dedication and compassion are my fav words of the moment . . . I need to be reminded of these words as I finish out the rest of the school year.

    And, I hate those those days in the classroom when you pour your heart and soul into a lesson and it fizzles with the students. Ugh! :-(

  11. This note is for Lara: “Defenestrate” is hardly a useless word, considering that people still get thrown out of windows, even in the 21st century. :)

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