Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

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gitgeezer
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Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by gitgeezer » Tue Jan 02, 2018 3:19 am

Yes, I know that messaging and other quickie internet communications cannot be expected to
have a high quality of word selection, but it seems that even formal writing today is weak on vocabulary. I noted the superiority of former writing again recently when I began a rereading of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The first chapter in the Barnes and Noble Classics edition is only two pages long, but what a splendid collection these two pages give the reader:

eleemosynary
indifferent
commend
whimsical
censure
peruse
regale
accommodated
condescended
victuallers
ensuing
luxurious
cavil
calibash
calipee
prodigious
exquisite
viands
contemning
metaphor
degraded
gibbeted
garnishing
provoke
incite
languid
keenest
Heliogabalus
quintessence
ragoo
affectation
premised

Is this decline to be regretted, or are we better off with our newer and simpler style?

ddray
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by ddray » Tue Jan 02, 2018 3:44 am

It's both good and bad I guess. What bothers me is the coarseness and obscenity which prevails today. I meet people who use the F-bomb as if it's just one of the common parts of speech. On the other hand that 18th century English could be unbearably florid, as in Harwood's infamous "liberal translation" of the New Testament:
"In order to guard you from mistakes in this important concern I will propose the following as a model for your devotions—O Thou great governour and parent of universal nature—who manifestest thy glory to the blessed inhabitants of heaven—may all thy rational creatures in all the parts of thy boundless dominion be happy in the knowledge of thy existence and providence, and celebrate thy perfections in a manner most worthy thy nature and perfective of their own!"

Ummmm...it's better to have a certain pithiness to get to the heart of the matter.

Philosopherguy
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Philosopherguy » Tue Jan 02, 2018 4:11 am

We always look fondly on the past as if it had some kind of magical aura about it that meant everything was better back then. I do not think this idea holds up to scrutiny. Literacy levels are at their highest they have ever been in the west and, I believe, more people are reading and writing as an effect of mass communications and the internet. The flowery and excessive vocabulary you talk about was always only understood and celebrated by the wealthy, educated and upper-class, as it still seems to be. Those who have time and money to sit around and peruse the dictionary and read will always have an advantage in the pursuit of this kind of mastery of the language over the working class, who continually seem to have their attention drawn in every which way possible because of the demands of modern society.

What I do not like of our modern society is the watering down of words into short-forms and nonsense. Words and language are what allows us to think clearly and rationally. If we water down words, we may very well be watering down thought itself.

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ddray
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by ddray » Tue Jan 02, 2018 4:19 am

Philosopherguy wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 4:11 am
...The flowery and excessive vocabulary you talk about was always only understood and celebrated by the wealthy, educated and upper-class, as it still seems to be. Those who have time and money to sit around and peruse the dictionary and read will always have an advantage in the pursuit of this kind of mastery of the language over the working class, who continually seem to have their attention drawn in every which way possible because of the demands of modern society.
...
Well it's good to know the words and their meanings and origin; that Latinate vocabulary was used with incredible artistry to convey shades of meaning by Shakespeare and Milton. But after a while it can degenerate into artificiality. The feeling is obscured behind a wall of words.

...He said, using a bunch of Latinisms :lol:

Malcolm
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Malcolm » Tue Jan 02, 2018 4:22 am

In the words of George Orwell: it's doubleplusungood!

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David Gutowski
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by David Gutowski » Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:54 am

That reminds me of a saying: what came first the chicken or the egg? What came first, context or words? Do words express context or create them? You can say something or express something very simply or embellish the same context by complex language; but the meaning of what you are trying to say is still the same. Or, can the context of what you are saying be changed by the language you use to express it? Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Can you imagine the language variations explaining this context? But in the end the meaning is the same, or can you change the meaning (context) completely to mean something totally different by the words you choose?

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Rasputin
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:27 am

gitgeezer wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 3:19 am
Yes, I know that messaging and other quickie internet communications cannot be expected to
have a high quality of word selection
I disagree - informal communications call for a different kind of language, and using the right vocabulary for the situation does not equate to a lower quality of word selection, nor does it show a decline in linguistic competence. Quite the opposite, I would say - someone who uses formal language in an informal situation is showing that they are oblivious to register, and thus that they lack one of the mst basic linguistic skills.
... it seems that even formal writing today is weak on vocabulary. I noted the superiority of former writing again recently when I began a rereading of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The first chapter in the Barnes and Noble Classics edition is only two pages long, but what a splendid collection these two pages give the reader:

eleemosynary
indifferent
commend
whimsical
censure
peruse
regale
accommodated
condescended
victuallers
ensuing
luxurious
cavil
calibash
calipee
prodigious
exquisite
viands
contemning
metaphor
degraded
gibbeted
garnishing
provoke
incite
languid
keenest
Heliogabalus
quintessence
ragoo
affectation
premised
Sure, but you can find florid and terse styles in pretty much any era. Also, you have listed the words used by Fielding that strike you as rarely used today, but have you considered how many of the words in two pages of a modern novel would have seemed exotic to him?

I think we'd need to be able to quantify the change much more accurately before we could begin to say whether it was a good or bad thing, and we'd also have to investigate whether there were other changes that restored any expressive capacity we did find to have been lost through lexical erosion. It may be for instance that sentence structure is more flexible today.

ddray
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by ddray » Tue Jan 02, 2018 9:18 am

Rasputin wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:27 am
I disagree - informal communications call for a different kind of language, and using the right vocabulary for the situation does not equate to a lower quality of word selection, nor does it show a decline in linguistic competence. Quite the opposite, I would say - someone who uses formal language in an informal situation is showing that they are oblivious to register, and thus that they lack one of the mst basic linguistic skills.
But the OP's concern obviously is with those who have *only* those "informal" arrows in their lexical quivers. In other words, those who have *only* the most basic linguistic skills.

But there are of course writers of the present day who can wax just eloquent (and prolix) as anyone in the 18th century. It's just that the "eloquent style" with its vocabulary has changed somewhat. However in the 18th century I don't think there were any influential Hemingway types offering a stripped-down style as an eloquence of another type.

edcat7
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by edcat7 » Tue Jan 02, 2018 10:12 am

I'm an avid reader (mainly of serious books and classics) but my spelling is only so-so and likewise my vocabulary is fairly limited. When I was a child I was told to have a dictionary nearby so when I didn't understand a word I could look it up. Now I tend to bypass those words or try to work it out from the context. I'm also lousy at cross word puzzles, what am I doing wrong?
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Rasputin
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Jan 02, 2018 11:35 am

ddray wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 9:18 am
Rasputin wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:27 am
I disagree - informal communications call for a different kind of language, and using the right vocabulary for the situation does not equate to a lower quality of word selection, nor does it show a decline in linguistic competence. Quite the opposite, I would say - someone who uses formal language in an informal situation is showing that they are oblivious to register, and thus that they lack one of the mst basic linguistic skills.
But the OP's concern obviously is with those who have *only* those "informal" arrows in their lexical quivers.
Maybe, but I think that it is a misconception to equate text speak with a lower quality of word selection, and since we need a solid criterion of good word selection in order to answer the question, I think the point stands. Anyway, since nothing else is put forward to show the size of modern speakers' vocabularies, it's hard not to read the post as comparing today's texters vibers and snapchatters with yesterday's novelists, which is obviously a case of apples and pears.
edcat7 wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 10:12 am
I'm an avid reader (mainly of serious books and classics) but my spelling is only so-so and likewise my vocabulary is fairly limited. When I was a child I was told to have a dictionary nearby so when I didn't understand a word I could look it up. Now I tend to bypass those words or try to work it out from the context.
I dont know but maybe it's worth trying to come up with a few sentences using each new word you come across.

I don't think the crossword thing is related tbh.

PeteJ
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by PeteJ » Tue Jan 02, 2018 1:32 pm

I feel that we communicate less well these days precisely because of a limited vocabulary. The nuances and subtleties are disappearing. I blame the National Curriculum and the way it destroys all hope of a decent education.

But it's not just the words. Letters are also under threat. Whatever happened to 't''? Even TV announcers these days are using the glottal stop rather than use a 't'. It's more cool, apparently, and being cool is of course the most important thing.

gitgeezer
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by gitgeezer » Tue Jan 02, 2018 1:58 pm

A flowery style of writing and a high vocabulary count are not the same thing. James Fenimore Cooper had a flowery style. Henry Fielding, despite his large vocabulary, did not. Mark Twain had some fun with Cooper. Commenting on Cooper's prose style in describing Indians eating a deer they had killed, Twain reduced Cooper's "without any aid from the science of cookery, he was immediately employed, in common with his fellows, in gorging himself with this digestible sustenance" to “he and the others ate the meat raw.” [Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offences: Cooper’s Prose Style]

And while Fielding chose words that perfectly conveyed his meaning, Cooper's choice of words was imprecise. As Twain said, "Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words." [Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences]

Hemingway gave Twain credit for introducing a sparcer and more direct style. As Hemingway famously said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.'" But Twain did not attach a limited vocabulary to this modern style. Consider these words from the first three chapters of Tom Sawyer:

vanity
sagacity
diligence
ambuscade
guile
bona fide
deduce
diffident
beguiled
alacrity
delectable
reposeful
melancholy
taw
tranquiity
ridicule
melodious
ponderously
jeer
dilapidated
wended
intrepid
eminence
evanescence
furtive
grotesque
pliant
exultation
perplexed
audacious
morosely
beseeching
desolate
felicity
blighted
martyr

As Twain said, "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

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prawnheed
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by prawnheed » Tue Jan 02, 2018 2:14 pm

I don't think vocabulary is declining at all. In fact the opposite is true - new words are frequently being added to the language.

The fact that some words gain popularity and others lose popularity is also not a new phenomenon. Neither is the fact that more erudite people frequently use a broader vocabulary.

Picking any historical piece of writing will just show these two effects - some words being used that have fallen out of favour, other words not being used as they haven't yet found favour and, depending on the writer and the intended audience the use of either a broad or narrow lexicon.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Jack Douglas » Tue Jan 02, 2018 2:26 pm

Gitgeezer,
You hit the nail on the head regarding the contemporary written word. I miss reading in current novels the elegant use of language by such writers as Pat Conroy, Tom Wolfe, both fairly recent. Their sentence structure and choice of words made reading a pleasure. I’m also a fan of Ernest Hemingway and in his last book, Islands in the Stream, his word choice had changed from his earlier works written in Paris. I’m certainly not a scholar but it doesn’t take one to observe the lack of vocabulary and sentence structure in much of what I read or listen to currently.
It takes effort and creativity to write with a command of vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure and those are the shortcomings I see in much of the written word these days.
One can certainly argue that the education system is at fault but there seems to be a overall laziness in the use of language.
Gitgeezer, thank you for a provocative op!
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Rasputin
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Jan 02, 2018 2:56 pm

gitgeezer wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 1:58 pm
A flowery style of writing and a high vocabulary count are not the same thing.
No, that's true - but you still haven't offered any evidence that vocabulary counts are in decline, or acknowledged the many words that are common today but would have flummoxed Huckleberry Finn.

An ability to come up with the right word at the right time and a high vocabulary count are not the same thing, either. We often choose the wrong words even though we know the right ones.

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