December 30, 2006

Vocabulary size and country music

The Economist ("Middle America's soul", 23 December 2006, 45-47) quotes a contemptuous Bob Newhart joke about country music:

"I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’."

Never mind the target of the joke (Newhart is probably satirizing the familiar blue-state bi-coastal snooty attitude toward c&w rather than endorsing it); let's think about its basis. Once again, it's vocabulary size as the measure of intelligence and wisdom and culture, isn't it?

Despite the fact that we have virtually no idea of how to measure vocabulary size rigorously and fairly (which is one thing differentiating vocabulary size from penis length), nobody cares: people are prepared (it would seem) to accept imaginary facts about how many words are known by groups of people about whom they know nothing (or about themselves, as with the Payack claims concerning English) as a reliable assay of intelligence level, or even the sophistication level of a whole language or culture, and to accept any kind raving nonsense anyone comes up with by way of vocabulary counting. The Reader's Digest word quiz is headed "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power": just sock those words away like cash in a bank. And Will Shortz's puzzles on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday (how I hate that puzzle segment) are nearly always about rapid lexical access. It's the central stereotypical yardstick for how smart you are among ordinary people: how many words you have, and how quickly you can come up with the right one to name the right kind of snow or whatever. Newhart's joke reminded me again of how superficial lexicon size measurement is as a surrogate for intelligence, and how common it is to find journalists writing things (of either the many-words-for-X or the no-word-for-X variety) that suggest they accept it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 30, 2006 01:21 AM