This afternoon I hung up the phone after speaking with a friend and found myself in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe the words that had come out of both our mouths: “Hey babe, how’s it hangin? Yeah, that’s cool. I dunno man, that’s kinda random. Yeah, whatever. Like, I can’t do anything about it, ya know? I guess it’s kinda tight. Arright, cool, call me whenever you get a chance. Later, bye.”
Arright, cool, tight, bye.
I used to credit myself with a superior vocabulary and speaking skills. So much for eloquence. Sounds more like Ebonics.
I’ve fallen victim to that which ails the average American teenager: lazy speech and an extraordinarily limited vocabulary. And though I used to believe that our verbal inadequacies are only manifest in spoken language, I’m starting to think that even the latent, or passive, vocabulary of the average teenager is more than lacking.
Vocabulary homework from AP English. Define hypochondriac. Fabricate. Condescend. Culinary. Glutton. What is an entrepreneur?
In my class, there are questions regarding the usage of the above, fairly elementary words. Is culinary an adjective, or a noun? This is 12th grade. This is an Advanced Placement, purportedly college level class. And it’s fairly representative of high school classes all over America.
A study entitled “Metacognitive and Other Knowledge about the Mental Lexicon: Do We Know How Many Words We Know?” conducted by Eugene B. Zechmeister, et al., revealed that most adults view their personal lexicon as containing less than 40,000 words, and the size of their active vocabulary as no more than 20,000 words. The English language contains almost 1,000,000 words. The average 16-year-old American has a vocabulary of about 10,000.
Though most teenagers, myself included, have the capacity to speak better than we do, we choose not to when conversing with our friends. It’s much easier to say, “Dude, that party was mad fun. Hella people were there, and the DJ was tight” than to launch into a descriptive account of all the enjoyable moments at the party and the DJ’s specific qualifications and skills. We have no impetus to learn new words because we tolerate each other’s lazy speech. We are allowed and allow ourselves to speak slothfully. We don’t read enough. We don’t think enough. And it’s starting to show on paper.
A recent article in the Washington Times revealed that though the average score on the math portion of the SAT rose two points to 516 (out of 800) in 2002, the average verbal score fell three points, to 504 (out of 800).
“Language is a city,” mused the oft-quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to the building of which every human being brought a stone.” If one can assume that the foundation of this “city” was cemented long ago by humans of every race and spoken tongue, it is an equally fair observation that the pillars and columns of the city are being erected today by speakers of the English language. If we don’t try to improve our respective vocabularies (and our SAT scores) and learn to love the feel of new syllables on our tongues, the next generation of lazy speakers is going to create a rather shoddy construction.
We need to learn to love linguistics. We must appreciate words.
Words, in their multifarious capacity, distinguish humans from the beasts and birds of the planet. They are, as semanticist Paul West affirms, “uniquely human, the silk of our so-called civilization, and worthy now and then of prolonged scrutiny as we blink at thousands of years-sometimes-compressed into one or two syllables, each one an emblem utterable in a breath.”
Speakers of the English language have a history we can be especially proud of (and that’s something we Americans, who have hardly a national history, shouldn’t take for granted). English traces its roots back to Indo-European, a language from which countless other languages have emerged. Belief in the common Indo-European root was spurred in 1585, by Italian merchant Filippo Sassetti’s study of Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindus of the Indian subcontinent. On a trip to the subcontinent, Sassetti found scholars writing and speaking a language that seemed to him very old. According to some linguists, “Sassetti may have thought that he had stumbled onto Urs-prache, the ‘original’ language of man, given to him by God in the Garden of Eden.” Sassetti found the similarities between Sanskrit and Italian striking; for example, “snake” in Sanskrit was sarpa and in Italian serpe.
The similarities existed beyond Sanskrit and Italian, as 16th- and 17th-century scholars were soon to discover. The Indo-European language seemed to link a multitude of scripts and spoken tongues, from Latin to French to Sanskrit to Russian. Words like mother were similarly mater, mere, mata, and mat’ respectively in the above languages. The fact that English shares a heritage with these and other tongues makes it an especially exciting modern, evolving language.
English has grown faster in the late 20th century and early 21st than at any time previously in history. It owes its recent evolvement to the cultural and social development of speakers of English and to the growing number of students attending colleges and universities in English-speaking countries. The Internet and proliferation of journals published in English have also served to establish English as the closest thing to a global language.
Let us not hinder the development of a rich and beautiful language, a language spoken all over the world, by misusing its words and limiting ourselves to a stagnant vocabulary. Let us think before we speak. Not be satisfied with inane, monosyllabic phone conversations.
It’s time to push ourselves, and our words, beyond the boundaries of ignorance.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a high school student in California.