Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
By Jeff Woodburn
I’m drawn to odd facts – and this one in particular from a 1901 high school rhetoric (later known as English and still later Language Arts) textbook: The average American uses a vocabulary of 500 different words in daily speech.
That’s not many. Consider this: I’ve already used up about 11 percent of that allotment. Today, average word usage, including repetitive words, is 16,000, but there are huge variations. As one researcher told me, their study’s least talkative person spoke just 795 words in one day, while their most talkative spit out an amazing 47,000. The prior subject, probably had more to say, but couldn’t get a word in.
But what does all this mean? Is brevity a lost trait and with it silent contemplation? Have we become a bunch of blowhards? Has the quality of our words been dwindled to a variation of text-speech or professional mumbo jumbo?
As a news reporter and teacher I listen a lot— often I record and then listen again to assure accuracy. One my favorite pastimes is eavesdropping, especially on elderly people. I’m hardly interested in content; I just like old fashion words, phases, different accents and their straight-line thinking. The worst is professional speak, which is littered with acronyms and made-up words that seem designed to exclude less specialized minds. I recall getting a two-page form full of undecipherable sentences from a special education administrator. When I pressed her in person for what it meant, she said, “Can he read?”
I wonder if in the last century, while we shifted from a rural country to a metropolitan one, if we lost our ability to speak clearly, succinctly and richly. Possibly, it is akin to our culture’s growing imbalance between information and knowledge.
Experts tell me it’s not that simple. Sure the 20th-century bachelor farmer may have been laconic (who could he talk to in the back 40 acres?), but those days were also famous for orations that went on for hours.
Finally, they point out that the 1901 word count data is nearly impossible to prove and was probably based more on anecdote than evidence. One thing is obvious: the depth and quality of language has slipped. Teenagers talk more but with a simpler, smaller vocabulary.
Still curious, I grab my small audio recorder, place it in my breast-pocket and go about my typical day. Of course, recording people without their permission is illegal, but after counting my words and observing my habits, I erase the evidence.
Later, with pen and paper in hand, I translated and counted my words. Beyond being tediously boring, I found the ebb and flow of conversation interesting. Some kept it going nicely by alternating between listening and speaking, while others were duds – conversation killers. They provide too much or not enough.
I was surprised and embarrassed by how often I interrupted others, and how many extra words I squeezed into a pretty simple thought. And how right the old adage is – talk less and say more (and do it with words packed with meaning and feelings.)
Jeff Woodburn, of Dalton, is a writer, teacher and Executive Director of the Council for Children and Adolescents with Chronic Health Conditions. He can be reached at jeff@WhiteMtNews.com.
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Jun 7, 2012.