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Monday, May 2, 2011

Vocabulary and Communication

As humans we communicate by speaking and listening, and by writing and reading.  It boggles my mind when I think that all a person can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, experience and remember of everything there is to know can really only be communicated in one of the two ways listed above.  It is extremely limiting, yet this is the way we communicate everything as humans.
The English language alone by itself.  Well, it is virtually impossible to count the number of words because you have to decide what actually counts as a word.  Do you count forms of words separately?  Is the plural of a word counted also?  How about the same word but with a different meaning does it get counted once or once for each separate meaning?
What constitutes English?  What about medical or scientific terms?  French words used in English?  Japanese words used in English?  German words used in English?  How about Greek or Latin used in English?
The Second Edition of the 20th Volume of The Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.  Add to that around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.  The consensus is that there are approximately just over a quarter of a million English words.
How many words does the average person know?
Estimates of those who would say that their native language is English, is that the average person knows in the area of 12,000 to 20,000 words, varying with the level of education the person achieved.  Some colleges and Universities say the average of their students is between 20,000 – 25,000 words.
It is Interesting that Shakespeare actively used more than 30,000 words in his written works, and his entire vocabulary has been estimated at approximately 66,000 words.
I read that some studies indicate the vocabulary of the typical American teenager of today is less than half the size of the vocabulary of a teenager in the 1950's.  The study said that in the 1950's the average teenager knew more than 25,000 words as compared to today's teenagers who maybe know 10,000.
It is estimated that the typical college graduate has an active vocabulary 60,000 (which they use) and 75,000 passive (which they understand).

Even at 75,000 words, which if these studies are correct, seems rather low, when divided by the estimated number of words in the English language, our most intelligent people only know about 30% of the words available in which to express themselves.  It would have to be argued that if the average teenager of the fifties knew the same number of words as college graduates today, that college graduates of the fifties would have known much more than that.
I present all of this to make the point that as an intelligent civilized society it is imperative that we teach our children to read and write in order that they may effectively communicate as adults.  In this day in age with old books from the eighteen hundreds and nineteen hundreds being digitized and available for free on various e-reading devices or computers, there is more stuff to read than there is time to read in a lifetime.  Yet reading overall is on the decline!
With self publishing and blogs taking the control away from publishers, editors, and literary agents as to what gets printed are out available to be read, there is more stuff being written than ever before in the history of the world, but less people reading it.
As a Science Fiction Writer it scares me that the gap between those who know things, know how to communicate and those that do not know things and can't effectively communicate grows, which it is, it will create a entirely new class structure not so much based on wealth as it is based knowledge and power it provides, which in turn will create wealth and control of the illiterate masses.
Reading and writing are so vitally important in order to share thoughts and ideas.  In order to learn things, to work, to be able to fill out an employment application, to share with others briefly who you are and why they may want to employ you to work for and help represent their company.
Even speaking is taking a back seat to other things.  I find it incredibly important to be able to speak very clearly and effectively.  I find time to practice my hand writing just to insure that it is nice and very readable, as this is one of the ways in which I routinely communicate with others.  I also want to point out as a person who regularly interviews people for employment at the company with which I am employed, I judge people by how they fill out their applications, their spelling, if their hand writing is legible.  It totally baffles me by some of the stuff I seen on employment applications over the years.
As a society we need improve on our vocabulary, reading and writing skills.  We should express the importance of these skills to our children.  We should work to improve, preserve and protect the integrity of our countries native language.


J.L. Murphey said...

Well said Thomas!

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