Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Expanding your vocabulary: Or why you should risk looking like a twat.

Twat... it’s a funny old word isn’t it? Don’t know what it means? Look it up.
Here’s some examples of words I’ve had to look up the meaning of recently:
Loquacious – found  in two separate articles in the same issue of The Australian.
Effulgent  - used by Stephen Fry in one of his podcasts to describe the late River Phoenix.
Inexorable – from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel.

I’d estimate I have a fairly comprehensive vocabulary. I read extensively as a child and young adult, which laid the foundations and helped develop my skills in analysing word meanings in context. Still and all, the wordiest individual in the world will be coming across words they don’t understand, and rather than passing over a novel word (even if the gist of the sentence has been adequately conveyed) I've taken to collecting a list of unknown words, and when the time presents itself, I sit down and look them up to try to gain a better sense of their meaning and usage.It might seem a bit anal on first pass, but there are several benefits, some personal, some simply entertaining.

Should you risk looking like a twat and employing 'big words' within everyday context? This was something I was regularly accused of doing in my high school days in the country. I regret nothing.

Here’s the background information on the reasons I think we should all be expanding and using our vocabularies in everyday life.

Kevin Warwick, in his book I.Cyborg, detailed his experiences as a human cyborg. In the book, he detailed his ideas on human language in a way that significantly impacted me and has stayed with me for years. He described human spoken language as being 'linear and slow' i.e. communicated one word at a time and only able to be communicated in human real time. In other words, in order to convey complex ideas, or ones that contained a lot of information, we have to spend time stringing one word in front of another in a bead like fashion until this information is properly communicated. On top of this, we can only do this at the snail’s pace of human speech.

Let’s stop here and do a little mental exercise. Take a notion in your head, hold it and all the information it contains. Now imagine how long it would take you to fully describe the intricacies and structure of this single notion to another person using human speech. Now imagine if you could directly transfer that notion to another’s brain, whole and unchanged and have them instantly understand it in its completeness. Theoretically this method of understanding could be almost instantaneous. Makes talking seem a tad inefficient eh?

If such thought transfer were possible, we could do away with the clumsy art of verbalisation, but right now this sort of communication is relegated to science fiction stories and the distant future. For the foreseeable future we are saddled with our inefficient, linear and snail paced wind-bagging, and although we might be tempted to slump into a despairing heap, or fall back to grunting and clubbing each other with branches, we can at least pack more of a meaningful verbal punch with every word we utter. This is where increasing our working vocabulary comes into play.

You see, it’s not entirely true that language is completely linear. This assumption is based upon the words that we most commonly communicate with and their relative simplicity. It completely disregards words (and jargon, but that’s another story) that embody entire conceptual packages, and words whose meanings operate on more than one level. In order to understand this concept, we can gain a glimpse by looking at words in other languages that have no english equivalent. For instance...

Weltschmerz (German) - the anguish experienced by someone who knows that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.

Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan) - a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.

Mencolek (Indonesian) - when someone taps someone else on the opposite shoulder to fool them.

Wab-sabi (Japanese) - a world view which finds the beauty in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness.

When we employ these types of words in our sentences, we can convey more meaning with each single sentence. It’s like zipping a file or increasing the capacity of a battery. And if we are communicating with someone who also has an expansive understanding of our language then we can achieve a faster rate of communication and possibly a more comprehensive understanding of the ideas being communicated.
It’s not enough that we look up words we do not understand, we must then begin to use them in context. To use these words is to reinforce our neural pathways in the understanding of the words and the embodied information contained therein. 

Language defines us to a large extent, when Professor Henry Higgins took Eliza Doolittle under his wing in a project to pass her off as a duchess for a bet in Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady for the musical lovers), he was not to realise that more than just Eliza's vocabulary was to change. In expanding her vocabulary, he allowed her to both understand more of her own mind and the minds of others, and to express herself far better in her communication. Eliza was fundamentally altered with this simple feedback between the changed individual, her environment and those she interacts with.

We can become our own Henry Higgins and develop a larger arsenal of words to employ in order to tackle and convey the immense complexity located within our own minds.

Image creator: Unknonwn.

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