Ian Brown, writing in Saturday's Globe & Mail, takes a hell-in-a-handbasket tour of society's love-hate relationship with vocabulary. (As far as I can tell, the Globe conspires to make it impossible for me to link directly to an article without making it appear as though you have to pay for it. So I'm hoping that by linking
through Google I can to bypass this barrier.)
I'll start by getting my quibbles with the first line out of the way. "The last days of long words! The sunset of syntactical surplusage!" I can understand the lure of easy alliteration, but in a feature about vocabulary, the choice of syntactical
here is sad. Semantic
would have been a smidgen closer, and there's still that juicy /s/ at the outset. The loss of lexical lavishness
would have been just right.
Yes, well, on to the article proper: In one corner, quoth Brown, we have the logophiles like Conrad Black: those poor, misunderstood folk who simply love words and can't understand what anyone could have against dropping "tricoteuses
(knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective "braying"), planturous
(a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined
(doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading
(blustering) and velleities
(distant hopes)" into everyday chit chat.
In the other corner (because setting up false dichotomies makes for a juicier read) we have
"the linguists, who have the upper hand at the moment, (and) are very much of a type. They tend to be acolytes of American scholar William Labov, who developed the concept of code-switching. Standard vocabulary doesn't need to be taught, the Labovites claim, because there's no such thing as a standard vocabulary... Teaching a standard vocabulary today isn't just ineffective: According to the linguists, it's undemocratic and limiting."
Some of the most militant linguists are Canadian. Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. "I think it's partly a democratization, of getting teachers to have a closer relationship with their students, and being able to talk on the same level. I love correctness in speech and in writing. But I think to some extent I have to go with the change."
Here I fight my innate desire to smother hyperbole with sarcasm and simply note that the phrase, "I think to some extent I have to" doesn't exactly reek of militancy or relish. Indeed, there is little truth to be found in this quoted section (though the lack doesn't stop there).
- I have yet to meet a linguist, in any sense of the word, who is not also a logophile.
- To be effective at code switching, you need a diverse vocabulary, not a restricted one.
- Of course there is a standard English vocabulary, but, by definition, it doesn't include words that most people don't know.
- As to whether you should teach vocabulary or not, that all depends on what the learners already know and what their purpose is, (more here).
All in all, Brown misses the point that it's simply impractical to teach someone enough words to have a large vocabulary (problems with counting words aside, his numbers are wonky; high school graduates know 6,000 + 35,000 = 41,000 words, but the average adult knows only 30,000?) A large vocabulary is merely a symptom of an educated person. Yes, some direct vocabulary teaching is probably useful with young children and ESL students, and having a good basic vocabulary will bootstrap other learning, but simply stuffing a bunch of words into your head is a trivial pursuit. The benefits that come with a broad vocabulary are those that stem from having a variety of interest, reading widely, and discussing concepts in some depth with other interested parties.
Which leads us to one more of Brown's forced choices: deploy grandiloquent vocabulary indiscriminately or use only short simple words. This is like saying that your wardrobe should be limited to white t-shirts & jeans or formal-wear. It should be obvious that you match your vocabulary to the topic and audience at hand. Occasionally using a rare but fitting word in a context that will make it clear is fine. Weighing down your speech with word after word that your audience is unlikely to be familiar with is like wearing a tux to your child's soccer practice. What purpose could the speaker have other than obfuscation or pretentiousness? I suppose there is one other likely explanation: an abiding lack of empathy. Either way, you're going to arouse suspicion. And that's why Black's lawyer kept him from testifying.