One Hundred Seventy-One Thousand Four Hundred and Seventy-Six

To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare


For those of you who prefer graphic representation of numbers,

That is the approximate number of words currently in use in the English language. While estimates vary, the average adult has a vocabulary of somewhere around twenty thousand words or so. A child has a vocabulary of some three thousand words. (as long as you don’t count the ones they seem to invent on a daily basis.)

So do we really learn that many more words between our first speaking efforts and adulthood? Maybe, but studies have shown the difference is really more just the ability to refine the more common words in more detail.

For example, a child might call every round rolling thing a ball where an adult might refine it into baseball, basketball, or bowling ball.   Yet even those of us who may not enjoy reading (why?) have such a vocabulary at their command,if they would only use it.

One interesting study showed that over the course of ten years, the Wall Street Journal used approximately twenty thousand unique words.  In contrast, William Shakespeare’s work contains more than twenty-five thousand words.

By the time of his death at age fifty-two, Shakespeare produced more unique writing than all of the writers for the Wall Street Journal did in ten years. And he did this by hand, absent all the expediencies and capacity of computers and printers.

I wonder if that is an indication of the demise and descent of our literacy?

If you’ve ever read something written in the 17th or 18th century—if you haven’t you should demand to be compensated by your high school or college for failing to provide an education—you can’t help but notice the beauty of the language. Because they could not instantly send an image of their child’s latest accomplishment, or the hues in the morning sunrise over their newly settled village, or the color in the eyes of their beloved, they were compelled to find the words.

And they did. From the common person to Shakespeare, they found the words.

While technology is often a boon to society, there is always some element of loss.

It would seem we have lost much of the art of writing with such compelling force as to bring tears or smiles to the reader. And while a picture may be worth a thousand words, our ability to instantly create and send thousands of pictures does not compound the value.

I would argue it diminishes it.

Our addiction to the visual—where our eyes and brains do not have to think but merely serve as voyeurs of whatever we choose to watch—has caused us to sacrifice the once unlimited ability of the human mind to imagine things just by writing about them and by having others read about them.

And I think, if the study of vocabulary were repeated today, we’d find we’ve lost, both in number and quality, many of the words that once decorated our lives. And lol, rotflmao, wtf, and omg are not words by any stretch of the definition.

I wonder if there will ever be another Shakespeare or Chaucer or Homer whose writing will last for centuries…

“It seems to me that poverty is an eyeglass through which one may see his true friends.”
― Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

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