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Words and Reason: Hear Ye, Hear Ye

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

It is unlikely that any of you have ever heard Old English (and, to be honest, it’s not highly likely that loads of you have even heard Middle English, unless you studied Chaucer in school). Most people are surprised to learn that Shakespeare was writing in Modern English, but that’s what it was. However, as you’re probably aware, a few things have changed since the bard’s day.

One thing that makes a big difference is the change in the size of the working vocabulary of the general population. Shakespeare’s vocabulary ran around 25,000 words (though I’ve seen higher estimates), while the average vocabulary of English speakers today ranges between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Granted, there are some of us who collect words as if they were gold, but that is becoming less common.

Pity that working vocabularies are so low today, as English is a wildly rich language. Because it in essence merged two languages (Anglo-Saxon and French, after the Norman Conquest in 1066), and has since that time adopted words freely from languages around the world, it has vastly more words than any other language—something like three times as many words as our nearest competitor, German.

English is an amazing language, evolving and absorbing words: kangaroo, pecan, rodeo, pajama, shampoo, kimono, chipmunk, safari, barbecue, and thousands more. However, some of the evolution in modern English makes it harder to understand what one is reading, even when reading things written as recently as the first half of the 20th century.

Today, I thought I’d share a couple of things that could help you if you’re visiting England or if you’re reading anything written a while back (in some cases, that includes anything before about 1970). Continue reading Words and Reason: Hear Ye, Hear Ye