We take our vocabularies for granted, of course, because the business of finding the words we want to use seems to come so easily. We call them up “at the point of utterance”, and – for the most part – we’re rarely lost for words. It is only when we watch young children learning the language that we begin to see the miracle that language is. Read Helen Keller’s account of the dramatic change that occurred in her life when she suddenly grasped the relationship between ‘the word’ and ‘the thing’, and we cannot help but be moved, can’t help but be struck by the huge significance of that first step.
How large is your vocabulary? How many words do you know? It seems a simple enough question – deceptively so. Loook a bit more closely, and you begin to see the complexity of it.
Let’s start listing words we know: cat, dog – two so far. Or is it? Take the ‘word’ DOG for example.
Sat first glance, dog seems straight forward enough. Dog (1) – one word. A noun. Refers to a quadruped mammal. As in the sentence: A dog barked at me this morning.
But what about the expression: to dog (2).
Misfortune seemed to dog my every step.
To dog is the infinitive form of a verb that means to follow persistently, to hound. Dog, the noun, is literal; dog, the verb, is metaphoric.
In another usage, though, dog (3) refers to the foot – as in the expression: My dogs are killing me. Builders use dogs (4) too; they are clamps used to ensure that floorboards are tightly packed when they are laid.
There is a slang usage too: to describe a person – usually a woman – as a dog (5), is to suggest that she is unattractive. Dog men (6) work at building sites, blowing whistles to attract the attention of crane drivers, helping to ensure safety on the job.
Are we dealing here with one word – or six? (Actually, there are many other meanings of the word ‘dog’ – just check out your Shorter Oxford!) Is a word simply a group of particular sounds associated with letters (in the written form): D…O…G together forming dog? What about meaning?
Is DOG one word or six or dozens? In other words, does a word in fact refer to the letters + the meaning. Thus dog (1) noun is one word, dog (2) the verb (as in ‘Misfortune dogs my every step) a second word, dog (5) meaning ‘an ugly woman’ a third word, and so on? Is a word a sound/letter/meaning clump?
And what about the various forms of the word – the various letter combinations that relate to the ‘sound/letter/meaning’ clumps? For example:
1. The dog barked at me.
2. The dogs barked at me.
3. Misfortune dogs my every step.
4. Misfortune dogged my every step.
5. Misfortune is dogging my every step.
Let’s explore this a bit further. By looking at another common word: school. When Mary takes her little lamb to school, we are quite clear about the mental image that the words conjure up: a girl, movement, a woolly mammal, and the school: a building, with teachers, children, desks, chairs, a principal, blackboards or white boards… the usual suspects.
Yet when we come across the sentence: ‘Fish swim in a school’ we certainly don’t conjure up an image of scaly creatures swimming around in a building, and surrounded by teachers, kids and blackboard dusters.
Clearly, there are two sound/letter/meaning clumps here. And if we look at the genealogy of these two words – in other words, if we look at their etymology - we discover that in their origins, they are as different as chalk and cheese.
School (buildings, kids, detentions) derives from Latin, and relates to the word scholar; school (the herd of fish) derives from a Dutch word, schule.
Thus, while their sound and letter elements are identical, their semantic elements – and their origins – are totally different.
It’s all very complicated. If we look back at the various DOG words, we can see that in some cases, the different meanings bear a metaphoric relationship to the original word. Dog began as a noun designating the canine species. Later, by metaphoric extension, dog came to be used as a verb, referring to ‘persistent following (remember: Misfortune dogs my every step). The metaphoric link is clear: just as dogs follow along behind their owner, so misfortune follows faithfully behind its unfortunate owner. Thus, the persistence of the animal DOG drifts into use as a verb. It is possible, too, to see how the dog man usage relates to the original word: just as a dog barks to warn of danger, so the dog man warns the crane driver of danger.
Dictionaries handle this problem of what is a word in a straightforward way. They distinguish between HEAD words, and the various forms of that head word. And the HEAD word (or base word) is the sound/letter/ meaning clump. Hence: dog – noun, quadruped mammal, member of the canine species is a HEAD word. Its derivative forms are: dogs (plural)
Dog – verb – to follow persistently, to hound – is a second head word; its derivatives are:
dogged, dogging, dogs, and so on – verb forms.
Doggedly – an adverbial form: as in- The detective doggedly pursued the criminal.)
Dogged – the adjectival form: as in – The dogged detective pursued the criminal.
This, of course, adds yet another dimension – that of grammatical function (ie. what part of speech the ‘word’ takes.
To know a verb means that we know it in its various forms. Do we count each as a separate word? Take our most common verb, the link form “to be”. Changing its tense gives us a hoard of different words:
I am sick.
I was sick.
I will be sick.
We are sick.
My dog is sick.
My dogs are sick.
My dogs were sick.
My dog isn’t sick.
My dog wasn’t sick.
My dogs weren’t sick.
My dogs will be sick.
And so on.
Do we count each of these various tense forms?
And what of various grammatical forms of words:
Adjective imaginative, imaginary
Dog eared is a separate (head) word. It is an adjective, referring to the turned down corners of a page of a book, which resemble the turned down ears of a dog.
To return to the beginning then. Counting up your vocabulary – the number of words you have available to you – is no easy feat. You need first to define what a word is, a complicated matter in itself. The problem has dogged me for years. Still, I’ve pursued it doggedly. It just goes to show, a writer’s life is a dog’s life!