The English language is a fascinating system of sounds, words, and script with letters borrowed from the Phoenicians and the Semitic alphabet. We have over a million words in our language stemming from ancient, ancestral contributors like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. The rapid evolution of our language is staggering when we consider how many different cultures have imprinted and ingrained themselves within our words and lingual structure. So with oratory options being so copious, why do we limit ourselves in our speech? Is it a fear of sounding pretentious or pompous? Or perhaps it’s the lazy ignorance of Millennials (of whom I am one)? I’m not entirely sure what the correct answer is. However, there is an apparent disconnect between the amount of information we exchange daily and how expansive our vocabularies are in communicating these emotions and ideas. We literally have a world of information at our fingertips previously unprecedented in human history. Yet for some unknown reason English words are diminishing into fossilized, archaic fragments buried deep into unabridged oblivions.
I believe a positive first step starts with the emphasis we place on our children’s education.
What’s the influence of technology?
Some say technology may be to blame. Technology is a progressive accelerator and its impact on how we interact is no doubt extensive. After the arrival of the Internet, people didn’t have to write long-winded letters. Instead they could send emails instantly to anywhere in the country or the world. Instant messaging replaced the need for the formality of emails and as phones became increasingly efficient, bringing an even faster method of communicating, phone texting replaced the need to instant message. With the growing instant messaging and texting generation came new abbreviated words and new acronyms, a sort of new-aged English shorthand. With all of this quick, on-the-spot information exchange why don’t we place a stronger emphasis on what we’re saying and how we say it? Outside of technology’s influence, the spoken aspect of English is also in decline and in dire need of clarity. I almost cringe when I hear a sentence overly littered with likes and ums. It’s as if we don’t really know what we want to talk about, which is absurd because, as Americans, we love talking, or at least lunge at the prospect of hearing ourselves speak. So what do we want to say? How can we say it differently without sounding like robots? Why should we expand our vocabularies and how do we change the pattern of ignorance?
Education and lexical proficiency
I believe a positive first step starts with the emphasis we place on our children’s education. Growing up, I attended a great public school with exceptional academic and advanced placement curricula. Yet what’s baffling to me is that, despite the different literature we read or the stories we would study, the emphasis on vocabulary expansion was scant. Naturally, we would encounter new words as we progressed through works from Shakespeare to Chaucer; Beowulf wasn’t too forgiving either and provided a brutal read the first time around.
By the time I was in the eleventh grade, I was staring down the end of my high school experience and preparing for a looming SAT that would take place in the spring. It wasn’t until the eleventh grade, however, that I was first introduced to a “vocabulary list.” In class we were given weekly vocabulary exams, having to cram 10 to 20 words per week. Although I can respect the attempt at broadening our written vocabularies in preparing us for the SAT, it was too little, too late. We were cramming words just to pass our weekly tests. We were memorizing and rewriting words, but neither speaking nor exchanging them in class. The point is, we didn’t learn the words: we memorized them.
So consider all of the students struggling to store hundreds of words into their minds hoping to retain enough to pass the vocabulary portion of the SAT. And this is one year before they all have to go to college reading, writing, and assimilating at the expected college level. Yet as Americans we wonder why our students are severely plummeting in short measure behind the rest of the world. Education reform is long overdue; on this issue everyone who is not in the one percent can agree.
Start ’em young
We should enrich our children with the right vocabulary starting when they’re children and not in the eleventh or twelfth grade. Twelfth grade teenagers aren’t thinking about words or vocabulary. For them it’s parties, premarital sex, and panicking about graduation. Children, on the other hand, can be taught anything because they are little receptive sponges effortlessly absorbing knowledge like water. Many public schools have started early Mandarin Chinese programs, which I think is excellent. I suggest we teach Latin or Greek roots slowly — implement them into teaching and make them fun and exciting. The reality, of course, is the obduracy of school boards and the teachers not having the appropriate knowledge to teach subjects like those.
English words have disappeared from the language at a faster rate in the past one hundred years than they have been replenished. We have social, educational, and technological factors deteriorating our urgency for utilizing them. It’s a dog-eat-dog, fast-food, drive-in, drive-out, and I-want-it-now-with-the-fewest-words-possible culture. That is the encompassing mentality for most Americans. The histories of words, their cultural contexts, nationalities, and etymologies are discarded and replaced by what’s simply mundane. Perhaps someday, we won’t need words to communicate and English will withdraw, assuming a position next to Latin and Greek. Until then, we need strong voices, well-written reports, and the sword and shield of our words to encourage change and end the affliction of “Newspeak” the one percent has circumscribed for us.
“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind