From historic times, one hallmark of erudition for a user of English language is command of the lexicon: that is the range of one’s vocabulary. Essentially, no two words of English are identical (except, perhaps, “begin” and “commence,” to cite my high school English master, a doughty, old Irish priest whose Magister of Classics was earned in Oxford U of the UK). That being the case, the wider your English vocabulary the wider the range and nuances of meaning you can convey. And that range can be phenomenal!
April 24, 2017
Charles Berlitz (a US linguist)* said English had “over one million words,” mostly derived from Latin. And he added:
- A highly erudite scholar of English language could command some 100,000 of those one million million words. Hence we shall use 100,000 as the benchmark of high erudition in English Language.
- However, most well-read scholars of English could use or recognize 25,000 to 50,000 of those words.
- Shakespeare used just 20,000 different English words in all his works (but that was 450 years ago).
- For comparison, The New York Times (of 1980s) utilized about 25,000 English words.
- But a UK university graduate mastered only about 10,000 words (10% of our erudition benchmark).
- For US college graduates the mastery was much worse: just below 3,000 words (<3% of our benchmark).
A native speaker of any language who commands less than 3% of its vocabulary is of course failing badly!
We must bear in mind that Berlitz’s statistics are over three decades old, hence outdated. An explosion of new English words has taken place since his time, occasioned by technical and scientific advancements, socio-cultural progress, and the newspeak of the electronic/cyber age. But this only amplifies the lexical inadequacy of US English.
[* Numbers quoted here are from Native Tongues (Perigee Books, 1984) by Charles Berlitz, a famous US linguist.]
Non-native users of English tend to acquire their vocabulary in the classroom or from literature sources. In contrasts, native speakers (perhaps Americans especially) seem to do so mainly via conversation (and increasingly TV). Hence the tendency in written US English to confuse phonetically similar words, or to misspell some others (as we saw elsewhere in these blogs) — for instance:
“do to” for “due to”
“principle amount” for “principal amount”
“peddle your bike” for “pedal your bike”
“mute point” for “moot point”
“duffle bag” for “duffel bag”
“loose your way in the dark” instead of “lose your way…”
“bigger then” for “bigger than”
“recumbant bike” for “recumbent bike”
“in dire straights” instead of “in dire straits”
“what is meat for the goose…” instead of “what is meet for the goose…”
… and so forth.
There is a great deal of confusion in US literature between “farther” and “further.” They are two different comparative forms of the adjective “far.” But there is a subtle distinction between them in terms of connotation:
FARTHER is the correct comparative form for FAR when it refers to distance;
FURTHER is the correct comparative form when FAR connotes EXTENT, not distance. Here are examples:
Distance: farther (comparative)-farthest (superlative). “I walked one mile but she walked farther, two miles.”
Extent: further-furthest. “I invited only adults, but my wife went further and invited everyone we knew.”
In one sentence: “I walked and thought; and the farther I walked down the road the further I considered his idea.”
So, one might say that vocabulary is the Achilles heel of US English. But Americans are not unique in this regard. All people tend toward laxity over their mother tongue and let the looser forms of conversational vernacular creep into their writings. (My spoken Igbo is poor and my written Igbo is abysmal!) In contrast, foreigners are likely to become acquainted with the strictures of grammatically correct English before dabbling into spoken English—where their unusual accent is a major cause of self-conscious hesitation.
An Englishman I worked with in the USA made a facetious joke about a US exchange student in a literature class at a London university. A coed tried to start a conversation with the American after class and the following ensued:
English coed: “Do you like Rudyard Kipling?”
American: “Dunno. I never kipled in any kind of yard before.”