In my reading over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a trend. Now, I haven’t done any rigorous, quantitative analyses to confirm the trend, so what I really have is a suspicion based on inference, internal logic, and anecdotal evidence; however, it struck me as a sufficiently interesting observation that I should desire to share it with you. The trend is this: the English language is losing words (ironic, considering our post about word creation), and is using more of them to compensate.
It doesn’t seem to make sense at first glance, and looking at a dictionary won’t help, since words aren’t really ever deleted from the dictionary, just added. Instead, we’re really looking at the number of words that are being used in the average lexicon. I’m not a linguist, but I do find linguistics and etymology fascinating, which is why I started to notice this trend, if it really exists.
Although Latin and Greek get all of the press, English is actually based at least as much on Teutonic linguistic heritage as it is on Latin and Greek. Reading older works, I noticed that, much like can be seen in modern German, the texts are riddled with words almost tailor-made for specific situations. “Oriflammes” is perhaps the most overt example of the phenomenon: it is a single word sufficing to convey the idea of “scarlet banners belonging to a knight or other prominent, military, or noble figure.” I came across “oriflammes” when I read The Divine Comedy, but it is far from the only example, in that book and others, of words with very specific meanings that have faded from use today.
My recent reading of Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric crystallized my thoughts on the subject, in part as I found myself searching for the original Greek sense of many of the words the translator chose to use, like syllogism and diction. I consider my own vocabulary barely adequate for my tasks, and am constantly searching for, and attempting to add, new words, but more and more people seem disinclined to accept or embrace, much less seek out, new and interesting words. Considering my self-confessed love affair with the English language, I find this somewhat saddening, but I also have come to believe that it is having an effect on writing. Whether that effect is a positive or a negative I shall leave up to you to decide.
Perhaps the trend has to do with the advent of the digital word processor. While the internet makes accessing definitions and learning new words faster and easier, it also reduces the need to remember them, and thereby the likelihood that we will be sufficiently aware of them to employ them in our writing or speech. Furthermore, the ease with which word processing software allows us to edit, review, and write in the first place means that there is a much lower cost associated with writing longer works – if I had to sit down, sharpen my quill, thaw and mix my ink, re-ink my pen every other word, and pay a premium for the paper on which I was writing, I would be a lot more careful to write only what is most important to write, and with as much brevity as I could muster. Combine that with the concomitant proliferation of content, and you have a veritable perfect storm for lengthy, verbose pieces, and with that a relative increase in the cost of taking the time and effort to finely craft a concise and eloquent thought.
I wonder if this might also have contributed to the rise of speculative fiction – in a context with high costs for the components of literature, there would be less room for something so superficially frivolous (in truth, I believe speculative fiction to play several important roles, but must admit that it is comparatively less important to write stories about wizards than it is to, say, record the best time to plant crops so that we all don’t starve in the winter).
When we discussed choosing words, we touched on the fact that, for all that we call some words synonyms, they in truth have slightly different definitions and connotations, sufficiently different that, depending on the context, one will not be necessarily interchangeable with another. Thus, I assert that while it is true that we can conceivably replace the glorious diversity of words on display in older works of literature with more adjectives, adverbs, and other modifiers, we would be losing a certain flexibility and specificity of meaning in the process, sort of like what is inevitably lost in translation.
In school, I used to be accused of reading the dictionary for fun, which is only partially true, but perhaps as a result of that I have long believed that I had a sufficient vocabulary. With the above conversation in mind, I find myself considering that perhaps I ought to actually sit down and read the dictionary, although that would be a terrible way to actually learn new words. I try instead to collect words, adding them to a list whenever I encounter one that is unfamiliar to me, so that I can learn it, internalize it, and hopefully leverage it in my own writing at the appropriate junctures. Yet as I sit and write, I now find myself wondering in how many places the writing could be improved by a perfect word for which I do not even know to look.