By Anatoly Liberman
Question: How large is an average fluent speaker’s vocabulary?
Answer: I have often heard this question, including its variant: “Is it true that English contains more words than any other (European) language?” The problem is that “an average fluent speaker” does not exist. Also, it is important to distinguish between how many words we recognize (our so-called passive vocabulary) and how many we use in everyday communication (active vocabulary). The size of people’s active vocabulary depends on their needs, but it is rarely large. Thus, five-year olds can say everything they want, but if they are read to and if grownups speak to them all the time, they understand complicated tales and the content of their parents’ conversation amazingly well (oftentimes much better than one could wish for). Some people cultivate their conversational skills and make an effort to use “sophisticated” words in their dealings with the outside world; others are happy to remain at the level of first-graders. One of the most memorable events in my teaching career happened about thirty years ago when a student approached me after a lecture and, having complimented me (they always do in such cases), added: “But I don’t understand half of the words you use.” Ever since that day I have worked systematically on reducing my “public” vocabulary but sometimes still forget myself.
Our passive vocabulary depends on our reading habits. Since “great classics” are being frowned upon as elitist, the younger generation has trouble understanding even 19th-century English (Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, and so on, through Henry James and the utterly forgotten Galsworthy), while publishers promote books written more or less in Basic English. Students get tired of following those authors’ synonyms, idioms, and convoluted syntax (their greatest compliments are matter of fact and down to earth, while all digressions are castigated as rambling). The same is true, to an even greater extent, of their attempts to read Defoe, Fielding, and Swift. For some Americans of college age even the vocabulary of Mark Twain poses difficulties. It is hard to believe that Mark Twain, like Jack London and Charles Dickens, was self-taught. Yet quite a few of our best and brilliantly educated writers did not make use of an extensive vocabulary. Oscar Wilde is a typical example. Others, like Dickens and Meredith, let alone James Joyce, made a heroic effort to use as many rare and learned words as possible.
Good dictionaries of English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, etc. seem to be equally thick. In a dictionary containing about 60,000 words one can find practically everything one needs. Webster’s Unabridged features seven or eight times more. Obviously, none of us needs to know so much. But perhaps two features distinguish English from its neighbors: an overabundance of synonyms (because of the partly unhealthy influx of Romance words) and the ubiquity of slang. French also overflows with argot, but English dictionaries of slang (British, American, Canadian, Australian) are almost unbelievably thick. This makes it harder to master current English than, for example, German, but each language has its difficulties. English resorts to all the usual international words (music, radio, antibiotic, and the like), while Icelandic prefers native coinages for such concepts. It appears that whether you want to learn a foreign language or your own you have to make a sustained effort. But then this is what the sweat of one’s brow is for. Only Adam had an easy life: none of the objects around him had a name, and he was instructed to call them something (presumably he remembered his own neologisms). His offspring cannot expect to find themselves in linguistic paradise.
Count and recount.
Verbs meaning “narrate” often go back to the idea of mentioning things in order, that is, by implication, to counting. Almost the only modern sense of Engl. tell is “to say something, relate,” but its old meaning “to count” has been kept alive in idioms and set phrases, such as all told, untold riches, and tell beads, as well as in its derivative teller. In German we find zählen “to count” and erzählen “to narrate.” The development was the same as in English, except that English has lost its ancient prefixes, while German has preserved them. Old French counter ~ cunter (from Latin computare), unconnected with counter-, as in counterargument and so forth, meant both “reckon” and “relate”; hence the meaning of the borrowed English verb recount “tell in detail.” French conter “to tell (a story)” is different from compter “to count, compute,” but this difference is evident only on paper: in speech the two words are homophones.
Over: Is it overused?
I am afraid it is. Prepositions tend to oust their synonyms. This is what happened to Engl. on, for example. We think on, write on, produce entries on, and read on something, though about seems more natural. Now over has become a preposition trodden to death. Suspicions, disagreements, concerns, and controversies are almost invariably “over.” Since I received this question, I began paying attention. Sure enough, over dominates the scene. “If talks break down over the continuing settlement expansion…,” “…died unexpectedly over the weekend,” “details will be released over the next few days,” and more of the same. This trend, as I now know, although not recent, has probably little to recommend it. I understand that some work can be completed over the weekend, but dying over the weekend? Why not during? Won’t details be released in a few days or a few days later? It is convenient not to suffer from overchoice and say, for example, as to instead of any other preposition (“my opinion as to this matter,” and the like) or to use over as a universal substitute, but aren’t we all staunch supporters of diversity? Why not extend this attitude to language?
Spelling in our life
None of us, I am sure, will live long enough to see English spelling reformed, but it is useful to remind the public that some time in the past the reform was uppermost in many people’s minds. Some discussants were more tolerant than the others. Here is the beginning of a letter to the editor written in December 1892:
“People generally think spelling to be a thing of great importance. I never have been able to bring myself to think so. If a word or two be spelt wrongly in a letter, the recipient will commonly set his correspondent down as an illiterate and half-educated man. But this is great nonsense. Spelling according to established custom should be maintained in principle, but in letter-writing should be regarded as of small importance. …men of gift are fed on things and on ideas, and to them words and the spelling of words are very secondary natters.”
How reassuring! I wonder whether the inverse theorem is true, namely, that any bad speller is “a man or woman of gift.” I cannot judge. My students give free reign to their imagination, nurture deep-seeded distrust of the educational process, and refuse to be straight-jacketed. In the meantime the Royal Spanish Academy lopped two letters off the Spanish alphabet and got rid of accents. If the accent marks are gone, I will never stop weeping, for, when I read Italian, I constantly check my pronunciation with the help of a dictionary (is the stress on the penultimate or on the antepenultimate syllable?), but Spanish used to be so convenient! Alas, books in Spanish are not printed for me, and native speakers know their stresses without dictionaries. A linguist is always born in a wrong place or at a wrong time.
Teetotal and a pleasant surprise
Some time ago I received a letter that deserves to be made known to all the readers of this blog. Here it is.
I thought that I would drop you a line for the fantastic account of the word ‘Teetoal’ you gave in an article I read on the internet. My hometown is Preston, Lancashire in the UK and we have the privilege of the grave of Richard Turner being in one of our churchyards. I did a photoshoot recently and included some of the photos of this gravestone in my Flickr photostream. In the description, I included a copy of the ‘Teetoal’ account you gave. (With appropriate credit of course).
I thought you might care to view this at sometime and so, this is the link to the aforementioned photostream.
Thanks for your time in reading this email.
Best regards, Paul.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”