Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Linguists versus Logophiles

There was an interesting article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail about vocabulary and whether we, and our children, should still be aiming to expand it.
It seems that, among educators, there are two distinct schools of thought, so to speak: the linguists and the logophiles.
The linguists, who are apparently in the ascendancy, at least in North America, believe (very roughly) that kids should only learn words that will be useful in their day to day lives. There is no such thing as a standard vocabulary, they argue, and to enforce teaching of a standard vocabulary is ineffective, limiting and, in some way, undemocratic.
Logophiles, on the other hand, welcome the teaching of any and all words, the more the merrier. They argue that it expands the mind, allows for more precision and discourages laziness. And besides, language is a beautiful thing: why deliberately mar it?
I think my position is reasonably clear (or at least I hope so). I encourage linguistic excess. I luxuriate in a superfluity of verbosity. Hell, I BROWSE through Dictionary.com! Words are “nice”.
Which is not at all the same as using obscure words in a deliberate attempt to confuse or impress.
If vocabulary is not encouraged at school, how many potential Booker Prize winners would never be inspired to write their first short story? Isn’t it the same as not teaching people where Laos and Chad are because they will probably never need to go there? That they can colour a picture red, but not carmine, vermilion or burgundy?
Neither do I go along with those who blame email and the Internet for all our vocabulary ills (although I do blame spell-checkers for our deteriorating ability to spell, and for the Americanization of spelling). It is perfectly possible to send an email consisting of more than 4-letter words - this is a symptom, not a cause, and the result of laziness, not poor education.
A couple of quotes from the article express it more eloquently than I could:
"The more words you have, the more ideas you have."
"I don't think there is any goal in having a vocabulary, I think it is its
own reward."
"The alternative is that we use fewer and fewer of them, until the world is
small enough that one word alone will suffice: Duh."

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