A duo of linguistic shizzle fo all-y’alls today, OMFG ROFL. First up, the NYT Magazine points out that despite the ad copy trying to sell you a new vocab program or dictionary, it’s not the size of your vocabulary that counts, it’s how you use it. Honest, honey. Your mono-syllabic grunts totally satisfy me.
Study after study over the past hundred years has tied vocabulary size to higher socioeconomic status, greater educational achievement and a host of other goods. Of all the benefits, real or imaginary, of a robust vocabulary, perhaps the most appealing is that vocabulary is heritable — that you can pass it along to your children like an acquired trait in Lamarckian evolution. The Educational Testing Service, which has been concerned with improving vocabularies since 1947, issued a report in 2009, “Parsing the Achievement Gap II,” which explained some of the benefits of an extensive vocabulary. Among the more notable benefits it cited was that children who are raised in higher socioeconomic brackets tend to have vocabularies that are remarkably larger than those who are raised in poorer ones. By the age of 3, children who are raised in a professional household know twice as many words as do children raised on welfare.
Yet before you set aside that copy of “Goodnight Moon” in favor of reading to your progeny from Merriam-Webster in the evening, consider that it is not simply the number of words but also how they are used that is important.
Next: what has Twitter done to our language, asks David Crystal? Same thing every other invention has done to it—simply changed it.
“The ethos of 50 years ago was that there was one kind of English that was right and everything else was wrong; one kind of access that was right and everything else was inferior,” he says. “Then nobody touched language for two generations. When it gradually came back in, we didn’t want to go back to what we did in the 1950s. There’s a new kind of ethos now.”
What has replaced it is something far more fluid – descriptive rather than prescriptive, as the terminology goes. In schools, appropriateness has replaced the principle of correctness. “Now, one looks at all varieties of language and asks why they are used, says Crystal. “We are rearing a generation of kids who are more equitable and more understanding about the existence of language variety and why it is there.”
This doesn’t sit easy with the traditionalists, of whom there are still many – as Lynne Truss’s bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves proved. That book was a dog-whistle call to all those who missed the old certainties of grammar textbooks. “It is interesting,” notes Crystal, his usually cool delivery tinged suddenly with a hint of exasperation. “What did Lynne do after Eats, Shoots and Leaves? She wrote Talk to the Hand [a book about rudeness and courtesy]. Anyone interested in language ends up writing about the sociological issues around it.”
Crystal calls this a “moral panic” over “mythologies” – his clearest example being the belief that text messaging is destroying children’s ability to spell. “It’s all nonsense, but people believe it.”