Monday, May 28, 2007

Some words say more than others

Remember back to grade school when one of the subjects was language arts. I liked that term. Using the language properly is an art. It quite possibly is a dying art like the art of composing heart-wrenching ballads for accordion or painting unique card playing dogs on velvet. (I have a suggestion for spicing up the works of velveteen canine Texas hold ‘em, add Elvis as the dealer.) Anyway, the English language can be very frustrating, but it can also be used to say just the right thing in just the right way, or at least say something interesting.
Following in a long line of people over forty I say the popular culture of today’s youth can be pointed to as one of the main culprits in messing up the language. What with e-mail and instant message language trying to say things with the least amount of typing possible. I don’t understand why it is so important to get the information to the receiver so quickly. We are not talking about getting Admiral Nimitz the latest intelligence regarding Japanese troop movement near the Solomon Islands. We’re simply trying to let Tiffanii (with hearts dotting all three i’s) know that Greg and Jimmy are going to be at the mall and they are so hot I could just die.
Wait a minute I might be on to something here. Remember how the United States military used soldiers who spoke the Navajo language as a code the enemy could not break. The CIA and Home Land Security ought to look into arming teenage girls with Motorola Razors and injecting steroids directly into their thumbs to heighten their text messaging powers. Even if al-Qaeda intercepts something the messages would be as intelligible to them as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s explanation of the plight of artists under Soviet control would be to the writing staff of Two and Half Men.
Not long ago I spent a big chunk of a Sunday afternoon on the internet. An afternoon I should have spent at the office catching up on paperwork or mowing the foot long grass in the backyard or playing catch with my son so he doesn’t empathize with that heart-wrenching Harry Chapin song. (How would that song sound on the accordion?) The internet trail I was wandering down was full of linguists. Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Theoretical linguistics looks at grammar, semantics, morphology, syntax, phonology, and phonetics. Was I studying the morphology of letters as they evolved from ancient Sanskrit to modern romance languages? Nope. I was reading an intellectual food fight about how many words are in the English language.
A San Diego based high tech wizard claims to have created a mathematical equation with which he can plot the growth of words in the English language. According to his website,, Paul Payack explains his algorithm tracks words and phrases in relation to their frequency of use and contextual usage and it is weighted, factoring in long-term trends, short-term changes, and citations in the major media. (Can you say “too much time on your hands”?) As of Monday May 28th Mr. Payack’s website says there are 993,412 in the English language.
Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who is contributor to National Public Radio, which means he is more intellectual than someone on ESPN and reads more books than someone on Fox, but isn’t going to win a Noble Prize anytime soon. Mr. Nunberg says Mr. Payack is full of beans. He said it in a more erudite way than I just did; after all, he is a linguist. The language gets new words added with some frequency. Some due to new discoveries in science (a new word coined which means something that was a planet and then a bunch of astronomy nerds got together and said it wasn’t anymore – Plutoed). Other words grow out of popular culture. (Truthiness, from Stephan Colbert, means something a person knows from the gut, not based on evidence, logic, intellectual examination or actual facts.) However, Mr. Nunberg doesn’t think someone can count the words and also many of the words counted are not words people really use.
All science and intellectual arguing aside words can say interesting things very simply. Poetry is supposed to give the most succinct descriptions of life. I get lost in serious poetry but the common man poetry of song lyrics do speak to me. Here are some of my favorites. I am not sure I understand exactly what they are saying but I like how they feel.
“Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” – Warren Zevon
“I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.” – Elvis Costello
“Standin’ in a bucket of bad news, havin’ a ball.” – The Lonesome Strangers.