Thursday, 6 November 2014

I shall remember this bold language

Superhero-use of vocabulary

In the television series Heroes one of the characters in Season One says “you don’t have to have superpowers to be a hero.” Why is Shakespeare a hero of mine? Well, apart from
  • the income generated for the country by Shakespeare tourism and culture
  • the endless types of characters and plots he created that scriptwriters and other artists are still inspired by 
  • the vast numbers and the scope of the themes in his plays and
  • the memorable words and phrases he recorded
I'm also in awe of My Boy Bill’s superhero-use of vocabulary.

From 200 to 4,000 spoken words

A child between the ages of 2 and 3 rapidly picks up about 200 words to survive and thrive when speaking. 850 is the widely-agreed number of words in Basic English – the number that all native speakers have been shown to be able to recognize, use and understand. A less-educated rarely-reading adult eventually speaks between 2000 words and 4000 words, depending on the type of reading they do (this number is of base words, not declensions, conjugations and variations.)


If you count reading and writing, the numbers go up: 50,000 and counting

A native adult can recognize about 12,000 base words and a regular reader will take pleasure in being able to use about 17,000 words. If you count all the derivations of base words the numbers known and understood goes up to 50,000 but not all of these are actively used in either writing or speech. (Camp is a base word but it doubles if you count the noun and the verb and then quadruples if you count the subtle differences between different meanings; using “camp” to mean an iron age fort is not so familiar a noun as the verb “to camp” meaning to put a tent up and stay in it for a bit….! And as for the meanings of “camp” associated with flamboyant cultural excess, well you can see the complications of counting vocabulary use….)  

Shakespeare did not understand a Freudian slip (although they appear in his plays)

David Crystal suggests 50,000 to 75,000 is the kind of number an educated, native, 21st century reader of English would know and understand (even if they didn't use most of them.) Many of those words, of course, are based on inventions, substances, concepts and neologisms created since Shakespeare’s death in 1616. We can forgive Shakespeare if he would not recognize the words iPod or lycra or Watergate/Plebgate or Pluto (as a planet – or dwarf planet – or minor planet – even new nouns shift meaning on a daily basis.)  
David and Ben Crystal's fine book

Academic word counting

Computer technology has now allowed researchers to track with some accuracy the vocabulary in the works of different writers around the world. Average writers in any language in any era notch up around 20,000 to 25,000 words – and they are the ones who produce popular and extensive catalogues of work. Shakespeare’s total vocabulary is not actually as impressive and extensive as many people think - it's not the number of words he used that mattered - it's HOW and WHY he used them the way he did that makes him a hero to me.