or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, October 15, 2010

Big Ideas

My friend Ralph recommended to me a book called Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield, and a good read it is, too. (I ordered it sight unseen from Amazon.ca, because I trust Ralph's taste.) Using the Oxford Corpus, a two-billion-word description of the English language, Butterfield entertainingly dismantles and analyzes the tongue. For instance, did you know that twenty-five per cent of all the words we write consist of the following list of ten words?

is (and its conjugations)

And a mere 100 words--which I will not bother listing for you, but it's more of the same, really--comprise half of everything we write?*

In the first chapter, Butterfield is wondering how we define a person's vocabulary size and consequently discussing what exactly a word is, and says the following:

...You and I know the 'word' drive, and probably think of it as a single vocabulary item. But drive can be a verb, a noun, and an adjective....So is drive one word or nine? If we count it as nine, we'll marginally inflate the size of our vocabulary....But that is not the way vocabulary size is calculated, or how the Corpus is usually analysed. In those contexts it makes more sense to take drive as a single unit--technically, it's known as a lemma, and is what you'd look up in a dictionary. Its individual variations are known as word-forms. (p.15)

But is it true that "drive" has to be either one thing or nine? I think Butterfield has chosen an awkward example, because "drive" has a great many uses in English--just about thirty, according to the Free Dictionary--but they all have the same basic sense, that of impulsive force. "Drive", in all its forms, really is just one word, whether it's a charity drive, the four-wheel drive in your SUV, or a line drive.

I would rather look at a word that has related but drastically different meanings which are usually but not necessarily obvious from context. "Round", for example. It has one primary meaning, that of an adjective--"curved", which applies to a person, a ball, the hole that a square peg won't fit into. Then there are secondary meanings that derive from the sense of curvature but diverge further and further: "complete", or self-contained and tidied up, alluded to in "a round number" and "rounding off"; "a complete, self-enclosed unit of something", as a doctor's rounds, in which he visits every patient once; "a single instance of something", as a round of applause. There are at least forty definitions, and while they might be related, they aren't as obviously so as the meanings of "drive", and some of them are very far afield indeed, such as "thoroughly and angrily": "she berated him roundly for his insult."

If you know that "round" means "curved", and "a drink for each person at at the table" (You buy this round) and "a unit of game-play" (a round of golf), and I know these things but I know that it also means "a cut of beef" and "a musical composition in which voices singing the same melody enter at different times", then isn't my vocabulary bigger than yours? Even if we know exactly the same number of words, isn't it the case that someone who knows a larger set of the meanings of those words has a larger vocabulary?

I don't think vocabulary is a single thing; I think it's two different but related things. First, and most obviously, it's breadth of your knowledge of the language, the actual number of words that you know--In Butterfield's formulation, both "active vocabulary", or the words that you use on a daily basis (that list of a hundred words mentioned above, and a few thousand nouns, verbs, and adjectives), and "passive vocabulary", the words that you know and can presumably define, but that don't generally make it into your everyday speech and writing, such as "supernumerary" and "Manichaean". Second, vocabulary is the depth of your knowledge of these words: if you know that "fix" means not only "to repair; to mend", but also "to prepare" (to fix dinner) and "to make permanent" (to fix a photograph) and "to castrate" (get your dog fixed) and "a dose of narcotic" and "a thorough understanding" (a fix on the situation), then your vocabulary is deeper than that of someone who knows only one or two of these meanings.

A good Scrabble player is likely to have a very broad vocabulary, because you can't play the game well unless you know a lot of words, but little depth, because depth isn't necessary to play the game: the meanings are irrelevant as long as you know for certain that the words exist and are allowable under the rules. You don't need to know what "beziques" means in order to get 392 points (the highest possible single-turn score) by playing it. (It's the plural of "bezique", a trick-taking card game, in case you wanted to know.)

You also need to combine the two qualities to master the language: the ability to use a large vocabulary deftly and accurately, to be able to navigate all the fine and minute variations between the endless synonyms in English. If you're trying to describe a large person, it's not much use have twenty terms at your disposal if you don't know that "voluptuous" is a complement and "elephantine" isn't, that "Rubenesque" refers to women and "burly" to men, which is why a thesaurus is such a peril--worse than useless--to the undiscerning writer.

*The list isn't definitive, of course. Other sources suggest other rankings: this one says that "of" is the second most common word, relegating "to be" to seventh place. The list also refers to written English: I recall having read that the most common word in spoken English is "I", which would not surprise me, but I can't find a citation, so consider it anecdotal at best.


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