Shrinking Vocabularies?

I’ve read the claim that the size of Americans vocabulary has shrunk over the years. Its been pointed out that the works of Shakespeare prove that the average Joe of today uses a lot fewer words than the average Joe of Shakespeare’s time. I have since read many articles disputing this. Its true that a lot of words that Shakespeare used back in his day are not understood by modern people. Still dissenters say that there are lots of new words in our vocabularies describing things that didn’t exist back in Shakespeare’s time so this makes up for the loss.

The thing is, apparently modern textbook publishers and even newspaper and magazine publishers have reduced the number of words that they choose to use. In fact, they often dumb down material to the lowest common denominator deliberately. It started because there was a realization in the 1900’s that many people don’t use a lot of words in their everyday lives.

Science has shown more recently that humans have, essentially, two vocabularies. The one that they recognize and the one that they use. The vocabulary they use is often a lot smaller than the vocabulary they know or can recognize. It’s not a bad thing: it’s just easier to use a ‘good enough’ word than to try to dig at the back of the brain for a more precise one most of the time. Most of the time it’s not important to use the ‘perfect’ word. Still just because a person doesn’t use a word does not make it impossible or unimportant for them to be able to recognize it or know it. So this dumbing down of media has perhaps had some unintended consequences. Children are growing up not exposed to complex words and often don’t know what those words mean. It is often pointed to as a reason that our modern person has a smaller vocabulary. I can’t say for certain that it is true but I think that it had definitely led to people being uncomfortable with words that they don’t recognize. People often look at me as if I have two heads when I use a word that they don’t know the meaning of.

As a writer I wonder if this reduction of words will be a deciding factor in if an article I submit will be chosen or not. And if publishers are rejecting books or articles that I would enjoy because the author chose too many ‘complicated’ words. I would hope not but I do notice in the self published novels I read on my kindle that there are often words I don’t recognize. I always find this exciting and often look the words up, as it is so easy to do on the electronic reader. I have not noticed the same number of unknown words in traditionally published works but that is simply a personal observation and might be totally biased.

To take away the option to encounter words seems wrong to me. We need words to help us acknowledge our feelings and understand our world, because without them our feelings can overwhelm us and we can’t think things through properly. As far as I can tell, as long as we keep enough words available to describe our interior and exterior life, we will be okay. Removing words from our commons because they are ‘too complex’ is like saying “math is hard for kids so we shouldn’t teach it.” It’s an awful lot like censorship.

Still its hard to prove that our vocabularies have shrunk, or that the reduction of words in mass media has had a harmful effect. It might be something to keep an eye on however.

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