Less May Be More !

17 Oct

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately. One thing that struck me was the number of unknown words that I come across as I read through articles/magazines. To my surprise, I found that there were very few words whose meaning I wasnt aware of. Not that my vocabulary is any better, as a matter of fact, it is poorwhen compared to a lot of people that I know. But then, the interesting part is that, atleast 99% of what we read contains words that are common among manypeople (ofcourse, I excluded saumya’s blogs..:)). I did a quick search and found that oxford dictionary has about 600,000 words. Apparently, 25000 new words are added each year. I am pretty sure my vocabulary is limited to may be 4000-5000 words (I am probably being optimistic here..:))… The next obvious question is why do we need these many words?

Well, I thought about it from 2 different perspectives. One perspective was to view it as a layman. My immediate answer was that, let us take a quick summary of the usage of each word and sort them based on the year and the number of times it is used. If a word has been used very rarely in the past 50 years of publication, remove it… Archive it for historical purposes so that when someone really needs to figure out something, they can look at it. While I was in the thought process, my natural inclination was also to think that, if people dont use certain words, they will eventually disappear no matter whether they are present in a dictionary or not… But, the irony is that reality doesnt seem to reflect my intuition.

The next view point was to think about the role of linguists. I was wondering, what do these people do? If I were a linguist, I will learn the grammar thoroughly and the continuous learning process for me will be to learn newer and newer words and may be even use them. As a linguist, the more and more words I know and use, I become more specialised. My major aspiration would be to add new words that I find from other languages or through historical references because I do want to contribute and make the language “richer”. Why would I want to jeopardize my specialisation by removing words from dictionary? Think about who has the right to add words to dictionary? Guess what, linguists… I dont mean to degrade their job. But, I see very less rationality. The only place where I see all these inane words being used are in spelling bee competitions and may be for certain language exams. People who have prepared for GRE know what I am talking about. A language can boast all it wants about the number of words it carries. But, simplicity can also make a language elegant and easy to learn. May be I am missing something very fundamental that others could enlighten…


Posted by on October 17, 2007 in From AM-KICKING blog


7 responses to “Less May Be More !

  1. Survivor

    October 19, 2007 at 12:58 am

    So, can we expect you to be a man of few words from now on…:-)

    I always wonder the same thing about historians too.What do they achieve by knowing what has already past….?

    As to words,yes, I would definitely prefer fewer words and especially the ones that we use….For ex, we don’t use words like “pedagogical ” while taking , do we? @ Saumya (* wink , wink *). And I firmly believe that linguists add words just for the spelling bee contests.huh…language of origin, please??

  2. Manohar

    October 19, 2007 at 5:57 am

    @mindframes: I kind of stand in the middle here. There are words that though not oft used have ways of conveying a meaning that other words don’t. Sometimes, these words can actually make a sentence smaller.

    For example: The lecture was soporific.
    The lecture induced sleep in me.

    Ofcourse this is a contrived example, but language has evolved so much over time- there is a certain beauty in some words that indicates its past usage and I suppose, this cannot necessarily be argued with logic.
    I think its more in the lines of art than cold reason… Its like asking why can’t all paintings be simple? Somehow I think that would be a very dull world. But thats just me.

  3. Mindframes

    October 19, 2007 at 7:01 am

    @mano: my point is that, in your own words, the world is already “dull”…I do understand your point about the attraction/glamour words add to a language. But, if 99.999999% people dont use it, why do u think it is any important to a language?

  4. Manohar

    October 20, 2007 at 5:27 am

    @mindframes: before I answer your question:
    1. Define ‘use’
    2. How did you arrive at 99.999…%


  5. Mindframes

    October 20, 2007 at 6:14 am

    1) And, I thought your vocabulary was good..;)..
    2) Prove me otherwise…:)

  6. BrainWaves

    October 22, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Are they adding new words which are not used by people? If so, I don’t see a point. But I am for keeping the good number of old words and phasing out the others (which as you said is happening naturally)

    Reading/Listening(Lyrics) to a word which is not widely used but has quality (subjective) evokes a good feeling to me. Ex (in Tamizh): Whenever I hear lyrics with words like AAzhi (Kadal), Sudar etc. (which are slowly and surely going out of Tamizh) it feels good.

    So, like music, it has its own charm. (I heard some argument about Music is overhyped and doesn’t serve any purpose in NPR today – another blog topic stolen away by Mindframes)

    Another take is, when it comes to knowledge, more we know about a particular thing (compared to others) better we feel. (Ego?)
    Language is no exception.

    I was trying to identify some famous historians and I could not think of even one. But someone mentioned, if historians are doing their job right, they won’t add anything new and thus forgotten easily.

    I do think historians are key in understanding what and how things happened. But unfortunately we(humans) have strong will to not learn from history.

  7. Mindframes

    October 22, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    @brainwaves: You listened to NPR today… that would mean that they stole my thought process…:)… FYI, I am not planning to sue NPR…;)

    When it comes to language, I am talking about the common good of everyone… If you are conveying something without an intention of making other’s understand it, what purpose does it serve? Ofcourse, there are exceptions to this rule based on the individual’s ability and the audience involved…


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