A common complaint among my fourth- and fifth-grade reading students is that English has too many words. Our prodigious word-hoard irritates and frustrates them. They take no pleasure in the opportunities for music and precision presented by so much linguistic redundancy. Instead, they yearn for strict one-to-one correspondence between word and world, invoice and inventory.
Who needs “azure” if “blue” does the job? They’re tone-deaf to Hamlet’s “rhapsody of words.” Informed that Shakespeare used 31,534 different words in his plays and poems, and 14,376 of them only once, a boy feigned a yawn and said, “Whatever.” Who among writers deploys words with such prodigality today? Geoffrey Hill, perhaps? Alexander Theroux?
The size of one’s language corresponds in some manner to the size of one’s world. Linguistic poverty leaves our stock of reality malnourished, pinched, circumscribed. In the title essay of his new book, The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks notes that congenitally blind children “tend to have superior memories and be precocious verbally.” He continues:
“They may develop such fluency in the verbal description of faces and places as to leave others (and perhaps themselves) uncertain as to whether they are actually blind.”
Sacks quotes a woman who went blind in her forties: “`Too often people with sight don’t see anything!’” He concludes the book like this:
“There is a paradox here – a delicious one – which I cannot resolve: if there is indeed a fundamental difference between experience and description, between direct and mediated knowledge of the world, how is it that language can be so powerful? Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”