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How Life + Mathematics = Happiness
Scrabbling For Words
How big is your vocabulary?
You know thousands of words. Jane Austen uses more than 6,000 different words in Pride and Prejudice, and you can read them all without the slightest problem. In fact, your passive reading vocabulary probably exceeds 10,000 words.
On the other hand, your active vocabulary—the words you use in everyday speech—is much more limited. On an average day you'll probably get by on a few hundred words. And those words say a lot about you: your sex, age, and social class.
In the early 1990s, recordings were made of conversations and used to build a database of words in the English language. The database, held at the University of Lancaster, contains over 100 million words spoken by men and women of all ages and occupations. Three researchers, Paul Rayson, Geoffrey Leech, and Mary Hodges pulled out some interesting facts from this data. One of the most startling is the difference between the kind of words used by men and those used by women. There are certain words that act as fingerprints, showing that a conversation is between two men, or between two women.
These are the top three fingerprint words in women's conversation by academic researchers:
And the three words most characteristic of man-to-man conversation:
Those top three female words are instantly recognizable as typical of "girl talk." Just eavesdrop on a conversation between two womenchatting near the office coffee machine: "And she said that her friend was really upset . . . And I said to her . . ."
As for the men, here are a couple of guys leaning over the open hood of a car: "What's that fucking wire doing?" "Er, dunno. The battery's dead."
All joking aside, the journey from the equality of baby burbling to speaking in ways that encode your gender, age, and social status takes two or three decades, but you can go back to the first moments after your birth quite easily. Start by letting every muscle in your mouth and lips go slack. Now make a noise.
That grunt is called the schwa. It is the most basic neutral vowel sound, and it sounds similar, though not identical, when uttered by people with different mother tongues.
In the first few months after your birth, you'll start to babble, and by the time you're coming up to your first birthday you'll have a few words. Those words use vowel sounds such as u as in "mum" and a as in "man." They'll be bracketed by primitive consonants or nasal sounds such as m and n to create important words such as "momma" and "dadda."
Fast-forward to the age of around eighteen months, and you'll be making much more complex sounds by articulating most vowels and consonants, and introducing l and n sounds.
The extremes of the vowel sounds are the cardinal points of your language. In English, they range from a as in "cat" and i as in "hit," to oo as in "hoot" and aw as in "saw." You can utter a kind of sound circle with the cardinal vowels. Voice them in sequence and you'll find that the sound changes smoothly from one vowel to the next.
Counting vowels, consonants, nasals, and l and r sounds, a fully developed English speaker can recognize at least forty-five basic sounds. They are called phonemes.
It used to be thought that each phoneme was a distinct acoustic event, but it is now accepted that many are psycho perceptual. For example, the stop consonant pp in the word "apple" does not exist by itself. A stop consonant is the sound we think we hear ourselves saying when we use our mouth to rapidly stop or start a sound. The pp in "apple" is the sound made when we quickly close our lips to stop making the a sound, and then explosively open them again to continue with the le sound.
We perceive the stop consonant as an actual sound that exists between the a and the le. But if you look at the sound wave of someone saying "apple," you'll see a period of silence in the middle of the word. That's the pp in "apple." It doesn't exist: it's simply perceived because of the way the a and le are stopped and started.
One of the drawbacks of growing up speaking your mother tongue is losing responsiveness to speech sounds in other languages, as some Japanese researchers demonstrated. They played sounds to infants while monitoring the frequency with which the infants sucked on a pacifer. They sucked more often when there was a recognizable stimulus such as their mother's face or a familiar sound.
Newborns, who had barely been exposed to their mother tongue, sucked rapidly when they heard any of a wide variety of sounds drawn from many languages. Older infants sucked rapidly only when they heard sounds used in their mother tongue. The researchers inferred that infants lose the ability to distinguish certain sounds when they start to learn a language in which those sounds are absent.
Now, hopefully many years after you stopped sucking because something seemed familiar, you understand, speak, and read thousands of words. It's rather strange that we bother, when just a few hundred words are sufficient for our daily lives.
So, how many words do you know?
It's possible to work out the size of your passive vocabulary. One approach is to go through every entry in a dictionary and check off every word you know. But if you've got other things to do, there's a way that gives a good estimate in a much shorter time: statistical sampling.
The idea behind statistical sampling is the same as used in surveys of, for example, voters. The nation's voting pattern could be found by asking all 150 million intended voters about their plans for the voting booth. More practically, a representative sample of voters is questioned perhaps just 1,000 people carefully selected to represent all the localities and social groups in the country. Geekspeak
How Life + Mathematics = Happiness. Copyright © by Graham Tattersall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.