Words: We’re at a loss

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A scan of social media, national headlines, and common conversation makes it obvious: Words are more thoughtlessly and publicly wielded. Language erodes into textspeak.

That begs the question for National Words Matter Week: Do they?

According to linguistic research, words are directly linked with the brain’s ability to distinguish — among similar objects, qualities, or concepts — and the ability to understand those differences. Modern man continues to reduce daily spoken vocabulary, while expanding Oxford English Dictionary listings — which now exceed 1 million and counting.

We use very few of those — about 171,000, according to Oxford, and the average person’s vocabulary has shrunk in recent years. While linguistic researchers estimate most educated adults recognize 50,000-70,000 words, according to the Reading Teachers Book of Lists, a vocabulary of only 3,000 words covers 95 percent of modern texts. Far fewer are needed for magazines, blogs, and conversation.

In Shakespeare’s time the average literate English speaker used tens of thousands of words, while today, the average person uses only a few thousand. Pick up any novel written a little later, such as the 18th or 19th century, and compare that vocabulary to ours; the difference is immediately apparent. Shakespeare’s prolific works added some 1,700 words to English (e.g., auspicious, baseless, dwindle, watchdog).

So what’s wrong with keeping it simple? The breadth of meaning, and associated thinking.

Consider colors. Most of our early ancestors didn’t see or recognize blue. There was no word for it in most cultures, except perhaps the Egyptians, until relatively modern times. Could you describe the sky, or eye color, without it?

Cultures vary, but studies comparing cultural color recognition illustrate that what seem the same two, or barely distinguishable, colors to some groups are starkly contrasting to others. Those who see “obvious” differences have another word for that color in their language. For example, the ratio of equivalent Korean words to English is 5:1 for what we would call the “same” primary colors.

Chinese has several words for “rice,” describing type and how cooked. In Arabic, many words translate to “camel,” signifying gender and type.

Next consider emotion. “Mad” explains little. What about “frustrated” vs. “irate”? “Irritated” and “enraged” are worlds apart. None of those evokes the same understanding as annoyed. Less common today, was another meaning for “mad” — insane. All synonyms, each with different meaning.

We need more words to differentiate. The fewer words in our vocabularies, and the less we use them, the less we understand of the world and one another. Better comprehension leads to better analysis and problem-solving.

So more words mean better living. More words increase effective intelligence.

While dictionaries certainly come in handy, exhaustive study isn’t required to improve vocabulary. Just head for the nearest bookstore or library.

After 2 million results, Testyourvocab.com concluded that while reading generally enhances vocabulary, what you read matters. Those who read more fiction had the biggest (and generally more accurate) vocabularies. Novels tend to employ more words to describe in more detail, compared with nonfiction materials.

“Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” — Rudyard Kipling

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at sholeh@cdapress.com.

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