Blog entry

Paragnosis

Song Of The Day: Day In The Life / Beatles
Word Of The Day: Paragnosis / 1, Knowledge which is beyond that which can be obtained by normal means 2, Skill in matters immune to scientific investigation, 3, Diagnosis, after death, based on contemporaneous accounts of the diseases which affected historical characters.

Language is so kick ass. That word, 'paragnosis' was one I plucked from my OED like I do every day for word of the day. I look for words that I don't know the meaning of, or that I don't use very often but appreciate, or that have unusual or obscure definitions, etymologies, or perform a very specific, unique function. Of course my favorites tend to be those with esoteric / mystical / occult, etc dimensions to them. Today I ran across 'paragnosis', and of course I was familiar with the pre-fix 'para' and the word 'gnosis' is a mainstay in Western esoterica, but I'd never seen the two together. Very cool, I thought, that will do. The OED only listed definition #1. I snooped around on the web, and found definition #2 on phrontistery's site (one of my very favorite sites, a masterpiece!). Investigating a bit further, I found definition #3 on Dorland's Medical Dictionary. Wham, three distinct definitions to the same word, NONE of which reference or include the others. Isn't that odd? English is a wonder. Page through the OED (especially the 27 Volume version) for a few hours and it really drives home the sense that we use a paucity of the miracle that is English. There are different types of vocabulary each of us have; First words we know and are part of our day-to-day communication, second the words we know but use infrequently, third the words we do not have access to in forming speech or writing, but can understand if we see written or spoken (we've heard them or read them before and learned them, but forget them until they are reactivated or stimulated), fourth words we don't know, haven't heard, but can deduce the meaning of using various means (context, body language, setting in a sentence, vocal inflection, parsing its components into parts we know the meaning of like para + gnosis, etc), and fifth the words we don't know and can't figure out. According to Richard Lederer, English has well over 600,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary- but according to the Global Language Monitor the number -I SHIT YOU NOT- as of 11:42 am (Pacific) on the 30th day of March in the year 2005, is 856,435 words in the English Language, plus or minus a handful. Compare that to 185,000 words for German, 130,000 for Russian, and 100,000 for French. Let's be super conservative and just say it's 600,000 words in English. The average English speaker possesses a total (that's including all of the first four categories) vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words. But we only use a tiny portion of that, according to Lederer, the most articulate speakers / writers only INTERACT with one-sixth of the available words in English, and only EMPLOY one-sixth of THOSE words. That means, if you are in the top 1% or 2% of the literate verbivores who speak English, you may have encountered 100,000 words in English. Of that, you might actually use 16,000 or 17,000 words in your life time. That's in the tip-top apex of the linguistic pyramid. To put things in perspective, Shakespear used a total of 21,000 distinct words in his plays, poems, and sonnets. The average vocabulary in his day and age in his part of the world was 500 total words. Most of the great, celebrated authors of today (in English) have a total active vocab of 7,500 words in their works. The AVERAGE English speaker has 2,000 words in their active vocabulary. TWO thousand. That means, the average person is using LESS THAN one-third of ONE PERCENT of available English words. Less than 1/3rd of 1%. That blows my mind. The average person with a university degree has about twice that, perhaps 4,000 words, still less than 1%.

Let's say a person had a mastery of English that rivaled Shakespear's, and they use 20,000 words (Milton ony used 8,000, by the way), AND they learned a new word every day, and they lived to be 100. That's 365 x 100, which is 36,500 new words they learn (starting at birth) on top of their whopping 20,000, on the day they die they can use 56,500 words, making them the most articulate English speaker ever to live by a LONG shot. They would still be acquainted with less than 10% of English words. That fucks with my head.

It also interests me as someone who's hobby is constructing a language. When all is said and done, I expect Isara (I've changed the name of the langauge from Is to Isara, as in Is + Ara, Ara being the name of my daughter, IS being the infinite present-tense verb referring to Godhead in manifest and unmanifest modes) to have 10,000 words. Now, given it's a specialty language, a 'botique tongue' so to speak, intended for a specific kind of communication. Still, at 10,000 words Isara will have only 10% of the vocabulary of French, which has (if we believe Global Language Monitor) only about 13% of the vocabulary of English.

There's something funny about English having over 800,000 words and French having only 100,000. The French are extraordinarily protective and proud of their language, as well they should be (phonetically Isara is based on French, English, and some slavic tongues). It's also noted and admired for its expressive beauty. The French have implemented various laws designed to preserve the integrity and purity of their language. English is the other way around. It's a blurry blend of Latin, German, various romance tongues, and it will pretty much appropriate anything at any time if it works, like an enormous star with the kind of gravity that magnetically snares whatever debris floats by. Paradoxically, English speakers don't seem particularly concerned with vocabulary or increasing communicative power (when it comes to syntax, semantics, signs, and signifiers). We seem to moving toward a visual / image-based mode of information encryption and exchange. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, I myself consider movies my favorite artistic medium, above poetry, and only marginally above music (simply because it includes music) but there's no disputing the link between vocabulary and I.Q. (for that matter, many other kinds of intelligence). It's certainly possible and probably even common for a person to be extremely intelligent and also have a small vocabulary. But you will never find the reverse -a person with a huge vocabulary that is stupid (cognitively). One definition of cognition can be the capacity for perspectives, the ability to inhabiit and assume various view points, and it's also true that each word is in fact a type of perspective. It literally signifies something, it is a referent, a kind of filter or lens. That's why etymologies are so fascinating. If you know 20,000 words, you have access to 20,000 miniature perspectives. More to follow....

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