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Monday, May 25, 2009

How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know?

When starting learning a new language, people are often obsessed with how big their vocabulary is. But the really important issue is not how many words you know, but how you use the words you know.

Take the example of the master of English language, Shakespeare. There are some wonderful statistics in Bill Bryson's work Shakespeare The World As Stage:

Marvin Spevack in his magnificent and hefty concordance counts 29,066 different words in Shakespeare, but that rather generously includes inflected forms and contractions. If instead you treat all the variant forms of a word - for example, take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, taken, tak'st, tak't, took, tooke, took'st, and tookst - as a single word (or lexeme, to use the scholarly term), which is the normal practice, his vacabulary falls back to about 20,000 words, not a terribly impressive number.

Obviously, it wasn't so much a matter of how many words he used, but what he did with them - and no one has ever done more.
Right there, we can see that Shakespeare's vocabulary was not greater than any average educated person now a days. It is thought, the average person today knows probably 50,000 words. A simple reason is that there are thousands of common words - television, sandwich, seatbelt, etc. - that Shakespeare couldn't know because they didn't yet exist. So vacabulary alone didn't count for what made Shakespeare Shakespeare.

Another amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he was really liberated to coin new words whenever he felt the needs. More from Bill Bryson:

He coined - or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of - 2,035 words, and interestingly he indulged the practice from the very outset of his career. Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour's Lost, two of his earliest words, have 140 new words between them.

In plays written during his most productive and inventive period - Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear - neologisms occur at the fairly astonishing rate of one every two and a half line. Hamlet alone gave audience about six hundred words that, according to all other evidence, they had never heard before.

Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, well-read, and countless others (including countless). Where would we be without them?
That was amazing. I wonder if anyone can do the same thing today, if anyone can write a play, or a fiction with this large amount of newly invented words there.

On another thought, it also shows how easy it is to coin an English word. It won't be as easy to invent a new Chinese character. That is one of the reasons that Chinese has stayed so stable over the past thousands of years. And expressions invented 3000 years ago are still in use.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Learning Spanish

Four weeks ago, I started to learn Spanish. It is fun and difficult at the same time. Since I'm a complete newbie in Spanish, naturally I have some thoughts when learning this language.

I followed a small book called 15 Minutes Spanish. And clearly I spend more than 15 minutes a day to learn it.

The first difficult part is that I can not pronounce the trilling "r" sound. This sound makes Spanish so lively and musical. But for the time being, I'll have to let it pass. And I hope one day it will come to me. It's like the "r", "j" sound in Chinese. Eventually most of students can do it.

The second difficult part is all the differentiation of genders. Women speak a word ending with a, while men speak the same word ending with o. And also the nouns and adjectives have to tally with each other, not mentioning the verb conjugations. Those really make learning speaking Chinese (through pinyin) bread and butter. And that also makes me wonder whether that makes a Spanish speaking woman more feminine, and a man more muscular.

It's also interesting to notice that the first chapters cover family and food. I wonder whether it is because Spanish people value family and food the most. And the questions like "Tiene ninos?" "Esta casado/a?" make me feel that Spanish people are like Chinese, not so much about personal privacy which English people value so much.

It is so much fun to learn a new language and what this language represents. I am not in a Spanish speaking environment, but I hope in one year, shall I have a chance to visit any Spanish speaking countries, I would do just fine.


Monday, May 04, 2009

The Advantage of Being a 40 Year-old Learner

Everybody knows that for a person to learn a new language, the younger the better. If you can start learning at 4 years old, it certainly beats learning it at 40 years old.

It's certainly true. But that doesn't mean that 40 year old doesn't have his own advantages.

The number one advantage is: The concentration level a 40 year old can bring into his study. He can put two hours every day to study. And he is conscious about what he is doing and where he can improve. You will not expect a 4 year old to do that. And that makes a huge difference on the outcome.

The second one is: The cognition level is a huge advantage for a grown up to learn a new language, not only the language, but also the culture behind the language. He certainly appreciates it more than his 4 year old counter part.

The last one is: A 40 year old requires shorter time than a 4 year old. Time is definitely 40 year old's best friend. For example, if a 40 year old dedicates himself into learning Mandarin Chinese for one year, and by the time he turns 41, he can function well anywhere in China. But you can not expect the same thing to a 4 year old.