Sunday, April 26, 2009


I read an article the other day about vocabulary. The author argued that he tried to use "big words" in his lectures in order to help his students understand complex concepts and to be able to more successfully discuss the subject.

That caused a flurry of Internet debate of course about whether or not that was a good idea. It is not hard to imagine the two sides and their respective positions.

But it made me think about several different things.

Not too long ago I read passages from letters written home by American Civil War soldiers. I've also been reading (for a long while) Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abraham Lincoln. She includes quotes from the writings of people of that period. Then I have read some things that were written long ago by members of my family including my father and mother and grandparents.

What interests me in all of these is the rather greater vocabulary in use compared to what I generally read today.

There are older examples as well. For instance there are some really old pieces of Biblical writing that survive that discuss very complex concepts using advanced language.

There are four possibilities as I see it:
  1. Vocabulary usage has not declined and I am just wrong.
  2. Vocabulary usage has declined because human capacity has degenerated.
  3. Vocabulary usage has declined because education is ineffective.
  4. Vocabulary usage has declined because it is a matter of fashion.
That first possibility has a lot of merit I admit forthwith having become by this age well acquainted with my own self-delusional, intellectual failures.

Education is more intense now than it was when my parents were in school. I really do not believe the educational system is at fault. Or maybe there is just more to teach. That's true enough. But we have more time to learn. My dad had to try to read by a kerosene lamp for goodness sake.

Fashion definitely is a part of the issue I think. Telephone, radio, television, Internet, cell phones, email, and texting all discourage both complex concepts and advanced vocabulary. But it is hard for me to conclude that it is the only cause.

I think there actually may be some loss of capacity. It is nothing I could really prove scientifically but it just seems that way to me.

If I were to propose an evolutionary reason I guess I would say that it is because our species does not need to be as intelligent. If I were to propose a Christian reason it is that we are farther removed from the fall.

Just stuff I was thinking about.


Staci said...

I think too many people have simply lowered their standards with vocabulary, grammar, and basically our morals. It is discouraging.

Lori1955 said...

How about because we are just plain lazy.