Is language in danger?

Posted by on Oct 25, 2012 | 11 comments

Vocabulary list

My childhood lists…

A recent post on the Write Practice gave me pause for thought. This site is a great writers resource – its topics and angles are many and varied and the practice prompts are great for taking you outside your cozy writerly bubble and showing you something you never knew you had inside yourself.

So much advice on writing is about keeping it simple; getting the point across in as few words as possible, conveying meaning without sounding stilted and contrived. The post that set me thinking was part of a series called Words on Wednesdays, where we’re introduced to a new word, given its meaning and an example of its use, then encouraged to use it in a 15-minute writing practice.

My mother started something similar with me when I was a child – she’d give me six or so new words and their meanings to learn in a week, with the instruction to use them in speech whenever possible. Her involvement lasted about two weeks but it was the flint that sparked a slow, steady burn of linguistic fascination – a compelling curiosity to know what gave rise to a word, how its use evolved and the different ways in which it could be put to work.

This week’s word was “Indubitable” and it got me wondering… I can’t remember ever hearing anyone use it in speech, though I’ve come across it in books. If we follow the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) philosophy, words like this will gradually disappear from our vocabulary, as our language grows more and more “dumbed down”.

I always liked the idea of sparsely worded image-rich writing – paring prose down to it’s purest form, but how do we marry this standpoint with the need to stop language mutating into a techno-abbreviated mess of trend-driven neologisms? Suddenly I’m seeing a need for writing as an expander of vocabulary not just as a self-serving mirror of society’s use. One hundred years from now will we look back on the speech of the age in the same way we see the grace in the writing of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis?

I understand language is a living, evolving entity, but doesn’t it need nurturing and protection like any other living thing? We seek to preserve species, geographical sites and places of historical interest – what about the tools with which we convey our deepest instincts, fears and truths – the essence of what it is to be human?

Thanks to Suzie Gallagher at The Write Practice for inspiring this mental meander…

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11 Comments

  1. I love your childhood list! At least you have one thing you can thank your Mum for :)

  2. Thanks for recommending this website, which I have now signed up for! By the way, the beauty of Tolkien’s writing is partly because he did not use complicated words – he used simple, Anglo-Saxon words. I try to expand my vocabulary too, but really and truly prefer to write in a more simple way. Just throwing in a couple of words like “indubitable” (which is even hard to say!) for good measure perhaps…

    • It’s a great site – I’m glad you like it! Although Tolkien used simple Anglo-Saxon words many of them have now fallen into obscurity; not everyone understands what is meant by “a mere” or “a sward”, nor comprehends terms like “confusticate” or “descry”. Words like these add colour and character to his writing and give it a grace and rarity that stands out against the flavourless gruel of some contemporary work.
      In an effort to write simply, I’ve found myself exchanging an unusual word for one that’s more common, toning down my vocabulary with a more uniform selection of words. I think I need to consider more than flow and ease of reading. From now on, I intend to keep those unusual words and maybe even deliberately throw in one or two more – not to show off, but to be true to my voice and give the reader something more tangible to tangle with! :-)

      • Good for you! I love words; thus, it irks and aggrieves me to see what has been done in the “dumbing down” process.

  3. Interesting post. I’m a lexicographer by trade and I guess it’s important to remember that the way that people read on screen (more specifically online) is different from the way that they read, say, a novel. I don’t think we necessarily need to panic that rich vocabulary is going to be lost, *as long as* people continue to read, and write, poetry, novels and other forms of literature. Also, in all likelihood most people have probably never used ‘indubitable’ in speech, because it’s a word that is mostly used in written English.

    That said, I completely agree with you about the ‘flavourless gruel’ (lovely image!) of much contemporary writing. But I hope that’s just a reflection of the fact that far more is published nowadays, and that it’s just a case of seeking out the swirls of honey in the gruel.

    • Ooooh that’s one of my imagined “dream jobs”! Are you in the practical or theoretical side?

      If we take a “frighteningly futuristic” train of thought, along the lines of George Orwell’s 1984 or the film Equilibrium, it’s almost as if we can see the seeds of that societal anesthetizing of creativity in todays world – legislative control of how people dress (Saudi Arabia, France, etc.) an uncomfortable shuffling around the line where freedom of speech becomes unacceptable and the media “dumbing down” of material for mass consumption. But I’m an optimist and like to hope that creativity in all it’s forms will continue to flourish and inspire many more through the reach of modern technology.

      As a writer, I’m making a choice to mix my instinct with what I learn about my craft. The path is different for each individual and nothing muzzles creative force like following orders. What’s that piece of advice…? “Behave as though you exist in the world you’d like to live in, not the one you do.” …or did I just make that up?

      LOVE the image of “seeking out the swirls of honey” – the perfect lift to my flavourless gruel!

      • Practical – dictionary compiling and editing. It’s not that dreamy, tbh, and the pay is shocking.

        Like you, I’m an optimist. I think of all the writing that is going on now that wasn’t before because of the way that technology allows people to write and receive the written word. A lot more rubbish, but also a lot more great writing, I’m sure.

  4. The French have always been great at attempts to protect their own language and it’s no bad thing. I think the key is finding your voice and writing in it in a straightforward way without sounding clever. If you want to use delicious adjectives to describe something, great. If the sentence doesn’t need it, leave them out. But sentence after sentence of long-winded, intelligent-sounding words is a bore – and the pretentiousness shines out like a blinding beacon of waffle. I try to read each sentence I’ve written back to myself and if I can hear James Earl Jones speaking to me, i know I’ve overdone it. The Write Practice is a fantastic resource, especially the prompts, and Joe Bunting is a valuable teacher. Thanks for this post! :)

  5. I am awful at language, I do however love a good word like ‘indubitable’ where you just know that someone, somewhere is going to go off to Google it to find out what it means, so in a way it’s almost like keeping spreading the language word!

    • “Transmogrify” is another meaty one – words to really wrap your chops around! Oh, and “disgruntled”, sounds like it needs a cuddle to get it’s gruntle back! And there you go! Now I’m guilty of anthropomorphism… I should stop now shouldn’t I?

  6. Clever Mum!

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