Is there any real benefit to a better vocabulary?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by John J. Bannan, Jul 13, 2007.

  1. John J. Bannan Registered Senior Member

    Our forefathers spoke much better English than we do. Yet, we are more technologically advanced. Do we really need to know big words to be better?
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  3. peta9 Registered Senior Member

    Technologically advanced and culturally advanced are two different aspects of society. Both is better but of course, you can make do with just the technological advancement. Speaking with someone who can only describe something as either 'good' or 'bad' is like seeing the world in black and white tv, you miss a lot.
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  5. orcot Valued Senior Member

    yes it helps you better to annoy people
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  7. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Did they?
    Have you evidence of this?
    Or at least an illustration?
  8. John J. Bannan Registered Senior Member

    Yes. The Declaration of Indepedence, as an example. Do bigger words really convey more shades of gray, or are they really just synonyms? That's great! That's fantastic! That's delicious! That's wonderful! Does it really matter which word I pick?
  9. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Hardly a typical example: that was written as an historical document from the start, to be read and re-read.
    Or did you just mean that things written for posterity then are better-worded than things written for posterity now?

    Most of the time you can get away with synonyms or close approximates, but there are subtleties and shades of meaning which are brought out by thoughtful and careful use of words.
    Try writing poetry and see how long you agonise over the correct choice of word.

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  10. John J. Bannan Registered Senior Member

    I never agonized over poetry, except to make a rhyme. In Ken Burns' Civil War, the letters of the veterans were so much better written than I could do - and yet they were farmers. What did those farmers know that I don't just because they can write in flowerly language?
  11. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Try it.

    They didn't know any more, particularly, it's just that certain words and conventions of speech were adhered to.
    The speech patterns were different.
    They took care over what they wrote, to get across the exact meaning they wished to convey, whereas, these days, most people tend to leave it up to the reader/ listener to glean the meaning.
    As per Fraggle's thread on spelling and grammar in posts.
    (Or your thread on laziness

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  12. John J. Bannan Registered Senior Member

    The only poetry I find worthwhile is in rock n' roll. Is that wrong?
  13. mybreathyourlung Registered Senior Member

    It doesn't REALLY matter which word you pick but if you'd like to be specific each word gives a slightly different description of what you're trying to convey. Great, fantastic, wonderful, they all have slight variations.

    I understand what you're saying though. I was just watching a thing last night on MPT about sailors way back in the day and it seemed like everyone wrote with such florish. You know? Everything that came out of their mouths was poetry. Now a days if people spoke like that you'd think they were wackos or snobbish somehow.
  14. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    And if you care about what you're writing you choose the EXACT word and sentence structure.
    I'd put some of Roger Zelazny's fiction up against a lot of earlier writing.
    Different concepts of writing, but the way he conveys meaning, nuance and background is a joy to read.

    But is it just because it's not what we're used to?

    How old is that?
  15. mybreathyourlung Registered Senior Member

    No idea! I would assume fairly modern.

    But I understand what you mean, we're definitely not used to speaking in that way. Or hearing it, really.

    Do you think because people wrote/spoke with such depth back then that they were more in touch with their feelings and ways of expression?

    I COULD write like that if I wanted to, even in song or poems or whatever, but I would feel silly and fake doing it.
  16. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Well spotted - less than 10 years ago.

    Because languages evolve, we have more "stuff" to talk about and consequently spend less time on choice of words or delicacy of expression.

    I thought of this while reading Baron Max's(?) thread on duelling - how few duels of wits are seen these days?
    And I mean true wit, rather than "Idiot", "No, you're the idiot and you're ugly as well".
    A gentleman was expected to be able hold his own in conversation and be ready with a pithy apposite thoroughly cutting remark, or be able to reply to one.
    (Without resorting to sword or gun play).

    It's "lost" art.
    But worth doing, even if only for yourself.
  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    No they didn't. In past eras the only writing that was preserved and passed on was the writing of "great writers." We have plenty of great writers too. The vocabulary of the average American in 1776 was surely about the same size as today. They just had a different set of words because those were the words they needed for their lives. They knew a lot of words for farming, making soap from scratch, clearing woods, occupations that none of us has any more. They didn't know some of the most elementary scientific and engineering words that all third-graders know today, much less the more advanced words that didn't exist yet which all high-school kids know today. Don't judge yourself against a master of language like Ben Franklin, let a Rhodes Scholar like Bill Clinton go up against him.
    I'm sure you know all kinds of big words pertaining to your car, your stereo and your computer. Remember that in English we speak in compound words but they don't get joined lexicographically into a single printed word for a generation or so. Client-server, cable-ready, beta testing, fuel injector, these are all big words that we write separately. In German they write them as one word so German looks more impressive than English, but it's just a matter of tradition. In addition, since literacy has reached nearly 100%, we have a phenomenon that didn't exist in Ben Franklin's day: acronyms. About half the people in America in 1776 would have no idea what "words" like laser and ATM mean--assuming for the sake of argument that they had the technology--because they were illiterate and wouldn't recognize the letters. You don't have to say "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation" or "automated teller machine" because you, my friend, are tremendously more advanced than those people: you know how to read! You can make the alphabet work for you.
    They really do convey more subtleties of meaning. Very few "synonyms" are really synonyms. They're just close enough that we can get away with interchanging them in casual conversation. Oleander just nailed me for using "self-effacing" and "self-deprecating" as synonyms. They aren't! The first means "making yourself less conspicuous," and the other means "insulting yourself."
    Ken Burns had an entire archive to choose from. You think he didn't have his staff go through it to find the most interesting letters? You don't think there were lots of letters saying, "Deer Myrtle, I done bin shot. Iffen I dye, take gud kair of the hawgs an teech litul Johnny to shute Yankies."
    They lived in an era when flowery language was in vogue so that's what they wanted to learn. Nobody likes that stuff nowadays so nobody learns it. We learn to write good business and technical documentation because that's what's important to us. Don't forget that half of those farmers signed their name with an X and couldn't write letters.
    How can an individual's taste in any artform be "wrong"? If that's what connects with you, if you get something out of it, if it enriches your life, that's all that counts. We are blessed to live in an era in which music reproduction technology allows us to listen to songs any time we want, so music has become a huge industry. As a result a lot of people with modest talent are making a living at it. Their work doesn't have the universal appeal of a Shakespeare or a John Lennon, and their poetry probably won't speak to people in future centuries like those guys will, but they do find an audience on their own wavelength and enrich their lives in their own time. I think that's wonderful.

    A lot of people regard me as some kind of expert in language. I do have a somewhat larger than average vocabulary, I'm a published writer and a professional editor, I give presentations, and I teach English to immigrants. And I love rock and roll too. I play in a band.

    There are lots of rock'n'rollers who write good poetry. I tend to like girl singer-songwriters, check out Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and Alana Davis. Shakira is a genius and she writes in Spanish, Arabic and English.
  18. SagaciousMind Am User Registered Senior Member

    "Our forefathers spoke much better English than we do. Yet, we are more technologically advanced. Do we really need to know big words to be better?"

    Did they really? I think they had just as much slang and dropping of letters from speech, etc., as we do. Secondly, speaking is mostly used for expression, not technological advancements. Vocabulary and speech/language definitely help us move forward in science, though - if that's what you're referring to. Imagine a world where scientists wrote their technical papers n c3ll sp33ch n u had 2 try figure out wat they ment. And imagine what would happen if they referred to sulphur as 'the stinky chemical' or something, instead of making separate terms for specific things. There would be so much confusion, not much advancement.
    And as for the more personally expressive purpose of vocabulary, we're social beings and one of our main goals as humans is to have people understand what we feel, think, want, need, etc. A large vocabulary helps one to convey what they feel, mean, etc., in a way similar to that of micrometers which help to convey a measurement more accurately. Without a vocabulary you can forget being understood. Not to mention on a wider scale the need to convey properly our intents, without misunderstanding, to other countries and peoples on which we rely.

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