How Can We Stop Shrinking?

by Penrod

In the August, 2000 issue of Harper’s I read: "Average number of words in the written vocabulary of a 6 to 14-year-old American child in 1945: 25,000. Average number today: 10,000."

Though I wonder how the data was collected and how the statistical means were determined and compared, I am startled by the drastic difference, by the shrinkage of vocabulary. Is language shrinking along with the much touted-shrinking of the world?

Not only has the written vocabulary of this age group shrunk, Earl Shorris, in the same issue, writes: "English, as it is generally spoken, appears to be losing more words than it gains. You only need to look at the thin thesaurus that comes with your word-processing programs to see how the English language is losing its internal diversity." Unhappily, Shorris uses the quite new English term "word-processing" in his comment. What a terrible term! Words cannot be processed. The term implies that words are some sort of unit of production that need to be pasteurized or homogenized—efficiently of course.

"Can the world’s small languages be saved?" is the question Shorris deals with in his article, "The Last Word." According to linguist Michael Krauss, cited by Shorris, as many as 3,000 languages, comprising half of all the words on earth are doomed to silence in the next century.

Tragic as this is, I am dazzled by the mystery, miracle, and diversity of language. None of the arts and sciences made by humans, according to Shorris, "equals a language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world" (p. 43). The loss of a language means the extinction of a world.

We hear of and experience shrinkage on many fronts. Under the spell of a growing "scientific" view, we are, as persons, in danger of shrinking into a mass of firing brain synapses or a particular pattern of genes. Foolishness, of course, but a powerful myth nonetheless. Are there antidotes to shrinking? Wash the clothes in cold water by hand? Raise our own food? Treasure the small and disregard the message that efficiency and commercial values are the only things that really matter? Get out of our airplanes and cars and away from the TV so we experience again how huge this earth is? Remember that we are created in the image of God? Lift up these words from Slavery and Freedom, p. 21 by Nikolai Berdyaev?

Personality is like nothing else in the world, there is nothing with which it can be compared, nothing which can be placed on a level with it. When a person enters the world, a unique and unrepeatable personality, then the world process is broken into and compelled to change its course, in spite of the fact that outwardly there is no sign of this. Personality finds no place in the continuous complex process of world life, it cannot be a moment or an element in the evolution of the world. The existence of personality presupposes interruption; it is inexplicable by any sort of uninterruption; it is inexplicable by any uninterrupted continuity.

Each new baby proves the truth of this insight. This is the right size—neither oversized nor shrunken.