Words are spells. Incantations that conjure up pictures in the minds of other readers. They can make us forget our troubles and remember our triumphs. They can inspire laughter and tears, sometimes both at the same time. By some estimates the average person has a speaking vocabulary of about 5,000 words that they use frequently, a writing vocabulary of about twice that many. A college educated person probably has a vocabulary of around 80,000 words.
Some people hypothesize that it’s mankind’s use of tools that set us apart from animals. Yet we see many examples of animals using tools. I think it is our use of language that sets us apart. I don’t think it is necessarily beyond the ability of animals. I know my dogs and cat have substantial vocabularies of words they understand. And there are animals, like parrots and crows, that can be taught to speak. In the case of parrots, I believe they often actually understand what it is they are saying.
The important thing is that they don’t create language of their own accord. There is something about the way our brains are wired that causes us to create language even if we aren’t exposed to language as we are developing. William S. Burroughs introduced the concept that language was a virus from outer space. This was reiterated in a song by Laurie Anderson. I’m not sure it is that far from the truth. It certainly changed the potential for acheivement of mankind.
It was after the development of language, mythologized in the story of the tower of Babel, that man became capable of coordinating his efforts to achieve monumental projects like the pyramids, and other prehistoric constructions. Language allowed man to pass on what he had learned to his children giving them a head start in learning new things about the world around them.
Written language extended the influence of a man past the people that heard him speak on to future generations beyond the sound of his voice. The limit of his influence was bounded only by the durability of the medium that he wrote on and the persistence of literacy.
I suppose that is what concerns me most about the modern trend that I see of glorifying ignorance and the bland acceptance of illiteracy. I could easily see us falling back into a new dark age if this trend is not stopped by those of us that value our linguistic heritage.
Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.