Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Dumbing-Down of the American Lexicon

Via Henry Cate from "Why Homeschool", I discovered an excellent post by Mama Squirrel over at "Dewey's Treehouse" entitled "It Pays Makes-Some-People-Very-Nervous-That-You-Want To Increase Your Word Power" In it, she discusses a recent article from a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail called "Are We Losing Our Lexicon?" The article examines the debate surrounding the value of an extensive vocabulary.

Critics term it elitist, undemocratic, and (dare I say it?) pedantic:
Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. "I think it's partly a democratization, of getting teachers to have a closer relationship with their students, and being able to talk on the same level. I love correctness in speech and in writing. But I think to some extent I have to go with the change.

'Betwixt' for instance, is just an old-fashioned word. So you shouldn't use it. 'Nefarious', people don't understand it, so don't use it. I think it does put a distance between you and especially young people if you use an old-fashioned word. True, some people like to be old-fashioned. But I think the world is changing so rapidly that we should change with it. So if you don't explain what it means, you waste people's time."

By contrast logophiles, from the Greek logos (word) and philos (lover), lament the deterioration of the typical individual's vocabulary. Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater and professor of English at Harvard, explains:

"I have found a deterioration in the capacity of students to use language. Just the papers I get require more work on my part. Imprecise writing. There's a laziness too. A kind of disconnect between the mind and the words.

So the capacity to articulate what's in your mind has declined. I just think, even though more people attend school for longer than ever, that people are not as well educated as they once were. We teach them not how to swim, but how to get along in the pool. We teach social and political things well enough. But we still don't know how to read and count."

Mama Squirrel points out that possessing a rich vocabulary allows the individual to read many of the greatest ideas ever written. Who needs to burn a book if we can dumb down the populace such that they cannot comprehend it?

Mama Squirrel discusses the importance of reading to help build vocabulary. I absolutely concur.

One thing I did not see mentioned in either the Globe & Mail article or Mama Squirrel's reaction to it is the abandonment of classical language study as a contributing factor to vocabulary decline. Throughout most of the history of Western Civilization, to be educated was to be fluent in at the very least one of the classical languages if not three (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew). The first public school in America, founded in 1635, was called Boston Latin. Its name reflects its mission, to teach Latin (and also Greek). Latin is still mandatory for students there; however, few other public schools require its study. In 1905, 56% of public high school students studied Latin. By 1994, only 1.5% did. The numbers for Classical Greek are even more dismal. In 1997, the enrollment for classes in that language was an estimated 929, and 72% of those students attended private schools.

Over 60% of words in English are of Latin origin and another 5% are of Greek origin. The percentages are even higher in certain fields such as science and law. Students who study Latin in high school score significantly higher on the verbal portion of the SAT than students who study modern foreign languages such as French or Spanish. A study of fourth, fifth and sixth-graders who studied Latin a mere 15-20 minutes a day for a year performed a full year higher on standardized vocabulary tests than their peers who had not.

We are planning to have our children study Latin in our homeschool for both academic and religious reasons. We are also planning on studying Greek roots by using a program such as Joegil Lundquist's English from the Roots Up or Michael Clay Thompson's Word Within the Word series. Rummy Roots looks like a fun game to help reinforce understanding of these classical roots.

Rather than "leveling the playing field" by shunning the use of complex words, we as a society should try to expand the average person's vocabulary. Encourage the study of classical languages in our schools. Journalists, authors, and teachers should avoid "dumbing down" their writing and speech and instead aim to enrich their audience's vocabulary.

1 comment:

Mama Squirrel said...

Thank you for the link and your kind words!