“One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die.”— Evelyn Waugh
“Human vocabulary is still not capable, and probably never will be of knowing, recognizing, and communicating everything that can be humanly experienced and felt.” — José Saramago
The American-Brazilian research project http://testyourvocab.com/ claims that English has the more words than any language on earth. Even adult native speakers learn about a word a day until middle age, whereas non-native speakers living in an English-speaking country may learn 2.5 words a day. Even non-natives who lived somewhere where English was spoken have the vocabulary of a native 8-year old, or 10,000 words. I learnt 2 new words doing the test: opsimath (a person who learns late in life) and funambulist (a tightrope-walker).
What about other languages? I constantly compare my language level with that of my Finnish niece, who has been learning the language about as long as I have. This survey makes clear what I already knew – if I want to continue to keep up, I have to read. A lot. Especially fiction. How else would I have learnt words like lohikäärme (dragon) and loitsia (to conjure, enchant)?
Roald Dahl says it well (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in a plea for children to get away from the screen:
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY…USED…TO…READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.).”…
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
And if you know any school-age children or teenagers, get them to take the test. The researchers have 2 million results already, but they want to know even more about how young people learn language.
The above image is by the fabulous Cambridge book sculptor Justin Rowe: here’s his blog.