Friday, June 24, 2011

The Social Animal

I'm reading David Brooks, The Social Animal. He has this to say about language:

Words are the fuel of courtship. Other species win their mates through a series of escalating dances, but humans use conversation. Geoffrey Miller notes that most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years. And yet the most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations. The most common four thousand words account for 98 percent of conversations. Why do humans bother knowing those extra fifty-six thousand words?

Miller believes that humans learn the words so they can more effectively impress and sort out potential mates.

Or it could be that men use those extra words simply to express themselves more precisely. Naturally the greater part of our conversation is filled with general purpose words useful in a broad range of contexts. Then when we wish to narrow our meaning, we must employ words that are only occasionally useful. Since the world is composed of infinite variety, there is no limit to the precise but rarely used words we can learn, and the more we learn, the less frequently they are used.

I love the way Brooks writes about "humans" as though he is a space alien who just stumbled across a new life form on the previously undiscovered planet Earth. Why do those strange humans learn those fifty-six thousand words? Why not ask yourself? You've got a pretty large vocabulary and, being a writer, probably have a good idea why those extra words are useful.

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