Tuesday 29 December 2009

Vocabulary and Shakespeare

For Christmas I was given Think On My Words by David Crystal, which is all about Shakespeare's language. In the first chapter he sets about debunking various bardolatrous myths: the first being that Shakespeare had a larger vocabulary than anyone else in history.

Having got through all the questions of method and counting, Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. Most modern, educated English speakers have a vocabulary of about 50,000. This is largely because the language is bigger now: Shakespeare wouldn't have known the words nationalise, juggernaut or internet. It's all about how Shakespeare employed his language.

Anyway, all the discussion of methodology made me ponder a couple of points. The first is that we know a lot of quite ordinary words that we rarely use. I am certain that I have not used the word glide in the last week. I'm not sure, but I may never have written it. This is not simply because I haven't been in a glider much over the festive season. It's quite possible for people to glide in and out of a room, I just don't think that I employ the word that way.

Another oddity of language is the precise nouns that we all know but never use. These are, on the whole, invisible to us, but are revealed by foreigners. I used to know a french girl whose English was near perfect. We worked together as copywriters at the BBC, doing exactly the same job. But whereas I was born and brought up in England and have an English degree from Oxford she had arrived a few years before at Cambridge to do a masters in philosophy speaking almost no English. She had learnt some as a child but had given the language up at the first opportunity.

This had caused her some problems. On arrival she had got a part-time job in a pub and had started learning English slang. After a week or so the job and the masters had left her so exhausted that her tutor called her in to ask her why she looked so tired. 'I have,' she said in her strong French accent, 'been shagged all week.'

Shagged in English can, in context, mean tired, as in "I'm totally shagged". More usually it means sex.

The point about this girl is that after several years she had learnt and learnt and learnt until she was just as good an English copywriter as me (or as I, but that's another post). She had become not merely competent, but a professional user of English.

She was, though, missing a couple of words. Once, we were walking together in the Brecon Beacons and she asked me what these "walls of twigs" were called. She meant hedges. Another time she pointed at a banister and asked me what it was called in English.

It is possible to live in England speaking English for years and never hear anyone use the word banister, hedge, rafter or ladle despite all natives knowing what these words mean. Many words that a native considers common are, in truth, seldom spoken. I suspect that I have used the term rhadamantine more recently than flagpole, simply because flagpoles are dull and not worth talking about. The stange and crazy alleys of my vocabulary bustle, while the wide central avenues are silent.

This makes my Russian aunt, who last week told me that a wood-pigeon had fluffed out its feathers, all the more impressive.

The point of all this is that David Crystal's method for measuring modern vocabulary was to ask somebody how many words he understood on a single page of a dictionary and then multiply by the number of pages. This would certainly test how many words I know, but employment is something diffferent. Many words are like Facebook friends: technically there, but I haven't seen them in years.

I somehow suspect that if I could only start to use the words flagpole and banister more often I would be as great a poet as Shakespeare.

A wall of twigs

P.S. As evidence for my theory, I noticed only at the last moment that banister has but one N.


  1. Love the post - will have to use 'wall of twigs' with reference to this blog one of these days. At least you got a thoughtful gift for Christmas. My cunning wife wrapped up a shirt I had bought for myself which was sitting on top of my wardrobe - "she didn't think I would recognise it"! ;-)

  2. There is one word I've always thought should be far more common than it is: vestibule.

    Most people don't interact with flagpoles on a regular basis. Vestibules, on the other hand, abound in our daily lives but I rarely ever hear people that word.

  3. This is a fantastic post - so much fun.

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