Saturday, January 17, 2009

I just read Brin's "Uplift War". Thoughts on vocabulary.

D: normally I look up any words in a dictionary as I read.
It doesn't happen often, since I have a pretty extensive vocabulary.
... I think I have repetitive-stress injury from reading Brin's book.

Sadly, there was no rhyme or reason to which characters were using the obscure words.
I was willing to accept it about the advanced space alien.
Not for the militia chimp, though.
Brin cannot write dialogue. Behind every character I can always see Brin peering out.
I cannot recall the TV show, but some writer had all his characters using "whom" properly- it shattered my suspension of disbelief.

Brin got me thinking, though. There were many words that my compact dictionary of ONLY 60,000 words lacked. To my way of thinking, it means Brin could not write at a level appropriate for his audience.
But how many words does a typical person know?
Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that an average high school senior knows 45,000 words, but other researchers have estimated that the number is much closer to 17,000 words (D'Anna, Zechmeister, & Hall, 1991) or 5,000 words (Hirsh & Nation, 1992). Surely these dramatically different estimates depend upon the three questions described above, namely, what does it mean to "know" a word, what counts as a "word," and who counts as "average?"

D: perhaps as important as having a large lexicon is knowing when NOT to use it.
In factory work, I have confused co-workers with such words as fallacy, necromancy, celibate and so on.

D: I want to write some sci-fi this year. Reading Hugo and Nebula award winners is research into this. I was looking at my Webster's Compact Dictionary.
It contains just under 400 pages of words to know.
That would require a year of reading 1 page per day, which is hardly an onerous burden!
I don't want to be able to use the truly fancy words, for fear of accidentally using them when inappropriate. I would like to, however, be able to express nuance more effectively.
I need to be able to summon the right word as an author where as a reader I need only recognize it.

One more thing, Mr. Brin. "Brumous" is not a word. "Brumal" would be.
Plus a word used for accolades serves double duty for eulogy. It didn't quite feel right.
Picking just the right word by definition is important.
Picking the word that fits in a sequence just right is even harder.
Big and large, in theory, mean the same thing.
But "big man" and " large man" each carry their own subtle implications.
The more an author wanders away from a core vocabulary, the more likely they are to mislead the reader in an attempt to impress.

Aside: Esperanto originally claimed it only needed c. 1000 word roots, but now has c. 10,000.
I'd really like to make modular Magnetic Poetry for it at the next Congress.
A large dictionary usually contains 40,000 characters.2 One must be able to recognize 2,000 to 3,000 characters to read a newspaper.

D: this resembles Ogden's Basic English.
If one were to take the 25,000 word Oxford Pocket English Dictionary and take away the redundancies of our rich language and eliminate the words that can be made by putting together simpler words, we find that 90% of the concepts in that dictionary can be achieved with 850 words.

D: I find some of these claims misleading. Any use of multiple word lexemes (MWLs) is more confusing than necessary. Learning more core words is preferable to generating meaning from a sequence of words that cannot be isolated to find the meaning.
For example, consider "put away", "put forth" and "put up (with)". Put is no help at all!
In fact, consider Ygyde's observation that
"The English language is not the best international auxiliary language because it is too ambiguous and too difficult to learn. For example, there are 56 meanings of the verb set, 11 meanings of the adjective set, and 47 meanings of the noun set, not counting subtle variations of these meanings. "
D: Let us assume that making chunked but manageable subsets of meaning with a new word for each is practical. That would leave about 11 words filling the void for the verb set.

I had toyed with the idea of using a tri-pitch system to capture 3 common meanings for Basic English words. I later incorporated pitch into VERSE instead to change other aspects.
D: this will be be incorporated into a tale of submarine future sea nomads I'm working on.

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