A conference speaker once told us the The Sun newspaper expected its journalists to tell stories with a basic vocabulary of just nine hundred words; other words were allowed, but only in the specific circumstances to which they related. One does not have to be sure of the veracity of such a story to be aware that vocabularies are contracting. It is hard to imagine that a writer as articulate as Charles Dickens would establish a mass readership if he were to be writing a hundred and fifty years later, many people would simply not understand what was being said.
A lack of a vocabulary can shape many aspects of our lives. In her book Journeying Out, Ann Morrisy talks about a lack of vocabulary in her appreciation of music; what other areas of our lives are changed by our lack of words?
“I remember when Classic FM first hit the sound waves. I heard music that I had never heard before; I found it very attractive and appealing. Unfortunately it was impossible and remains impossible, for me to share the pleasure that comes from such listening. The reason for my silence, and my isolation, and the difficulty of participating and partaking more of classical music, is that I do not have the language, or conceptual framework, that goes with classical music. I do attend classical concerts, but only risk clapping when others lead the way. I learned this essential the embarrassing way. I practise looking knowingly and nod sagely in the interval conversation in order to hide the petrifying fear that someone might ask me what I thought of the contralto.
Part of my difficulty is that I know that classical music is full of technical terms. I know that there are symphonies, concertos, codas and librettos. However, I neither know what each of these mean nor do I know how to form a sentence using such concepts. I know I can’t use colloquial words like tune, beat, song or lyrics without looking an oaf. So I stay silent, maintaining self-exclusion, because of lack of confidence about entering the explicit domain that surrounds classical music”.
Looking knowingly, and nodding, is the only option available to us in many situations. In some situations, perhaps we are not overly concerned at saying nothing; in other situations, we might wish we had words so as to avoid the fear of embarrassment; in others still, we might wish we had the words to express things deep in our hearts. To lose words means to lose language, and to lose language means to lose the capacity to communicate, and without communication, we lose a sense of what it is to be fully human. Reducing vocabularies affect the lives of every one of us, we need to learn to read and write.