How important is the size of your vocabulary? To many, it is the chief indicator of your intelligence and your social standing. Use the word “ain’t” or swear casually and you might be thought of as lower class and uneducated. Fill your conversations with buzz words and dropped names and people may think you a effete yuppie. Load your speech with slang and the word “like” and people are apt to think you’re an ignorant teenager.

Vocabulary is the subject of a new British study out of Lancaster University. According to researcher Tony McEnery, teens in the UK have smaller vocabularies thanks to devices like the iPod. The reason, McEnery says, is that teens spend more time in a passive, receiving mode when they have their headphones on, rather than interacting with other people and picking up new words.

A third of teenage vocabulary is made up of words like “yeah,” “no,” and “but,” the study finds. McEnery says that this situation can be corrected by bringing speech and rhetoric back into the classroom.

For all its attempts at scientific disinterest, McEnery’s study privileges people with larger vocabularies. Would the situation need to be corrected if it weren’t wrong?

Yet there are those who do not believe that vocabulary has that much to do with intelligence. Geoffrey Nunberg discussed vocabularies in a 2002 article, addressing a government claim that lower class children developed significantly smaller vocabularies than their middle class counterparts.

Nunberg thought too much emphasis was placed on vocabulary size. He wrote that “both educated and uneducated people turn out to have vocabularies that are perfectly adequate to cope with the moral and mechanical complexities of daily life.” In seems no matter how quantifiably large a person’s vocabulary, it is likely large enough to get them by.

“Getting by” may be the very thing that researchers like McEnery are afraid of. Subsistence is not improvement, and for those who believe that life must be a constance progress from one point to a better point, multiple intelligences–the idea that people can be smart in a variety of ways–is unacceptable. These are the same people who believe in maintaining a so-called “standard of living,” an idea only serves to impose a wealthier “standard” on other people’s lives.

I don’t mean to break down into a post-colonialist rant here, but it is hard to separate language from politics, and it is especially hard to accept the idea that progress is par. Progress is relative, a relic of the 1800s and the Industrial Revolution. It is the kind of attitude that reinforces the divide between the haves and have-nots.

When we start counting things that don’t matter to us personally, we become anxious about that number and overemphasize it. Worrying about vocabulary sizes is one such situation.


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