Blog of Pulitzer Prize Nominated Author, Jory Sherman. Get the latest information on his books, appearances and his candid reflections on writing.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


At the root of every human language, there is a basic vocabulary of around 800 words. With such a vocabulary, man was able to make himself understood through speech. Language is such a living thing, however, that it tends to grow as new discoveries in science, biology, nature, technology, etc. are made. As language spread among peoples, it constantly took on new words. Most of the major languages of today have grown well beyond the basic vocabulary. A language grows according to its exposure to other languages. Conquerors, in the past, affected the language of the conquered. The Roman Empire, for instance, influenced the language of a great number of conquered peoples, leading to the creation of other languages.

From the already dead language of Latin, which was never spoken; it was always a written language, rich in syntax. The Vulgate, was the language of the common people. This became the Italian language. And, Italian, through conquest begat other languages. We know these languages today as Romanian, Portugese, Spanish, and French.

English is the richest language in the world. From its Anglo-Saxon roots, it too into its fold, not only the Romance languages mentioned above, but those of Teutonic origin, Greek, Turkish, and a host of other tongues. It continues to grow today, unlike Chinese, which is also a dead language, like Latin, that does not take on new words. Other languages have become enriched by taking on English words.

Language is power. A large vocabulary allows for precision of speech, a wider range of expression for complex subjects. As technology develops with such rapidity, so, too, does the language, not only of science, but of everyday speech.

For a writer, a large vocabulary is invaluable. Just as a painter has progressed well beyond the primary colors into infinite variation and shadings, so, too, the writer of today is able to draw much richer images with language.

Yet there are those who would limit the vocabulary of writers, shorten the scope of the creative mind. Dictionaries are still published, but few readers use them. If they come upon a word that they do not understand, they tend to skip over it and miss the meaning. Books are classified into age groups among young readers. To me, this seriously limits the growth of young people who may grow up with a limited vocabulary. I think this has led to a stunting of young minds, perhaps the eventual death of language itself. I'd like to see books for young people designed to send the readers to the dictionary in order to improve their vocabulary.

The western novel of today is bound to the vocabulary of yesterday, except, say, in the case of Cormac McCarthy. This is a shame, and denies many readers the opportunity to grow intellectually. I think it also relegates the genre to relic status, burying the category in a language graveyard. But, it's not only the western novel that is being held back by a limited vocabulary. Other genres are suffering the same fate. The human mind is not being fed and it's in danger of atrophying from lack of vocabulary.

Here is an example of the alarming trend among publishers as outlined by Dean Koontz. I read the piece in Michael Cader's Publisher's Lunch, which he garnered from the Wall Street Journal, and present it here as vital food for thought.

4 May 2005

Koontz's View

Dean Koontz is reported to sell about 17 million copies of his books annually around the world, and he gets over 30,000 fan letters a year. The WSJ interviews him about the marketing of books. Koontz says:

"I would say the biggest problem is underestimating the reading audience. I've always written cross-genre books: a suspense novel with a love story inside and some comedy. But publishers resisted this strenuously. Everything has to be labeled, and sold that way. If you're writing a series, there is pressure to keep things narrow and not break out. Books like Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War" and James Clavell's "Shogun" have largely disappeared from the bestseller list. The common wisdom is that readers don't have the patience they once did. But underestimating the reading public is a very big mistake. If there was more trust in the public, it would pay off. An editor once told me that if I didn't keep my vocabulary to 500 words I'd never make the best-seller list."

He praises the web as "a low-cost way of generating a connection between writers and their audience" and says he will write more pieces for his own site.

WSJ interview

As a working writer, I do not subscribe to any basic vocabulary. I doubt that my work will ever achieve popular acceptance for that very reason. However, I refuse to be hampered by any basic vocabulary. To me, having the use of the richest language in the world, English, means that I can paint with a rich palette. I can use colors that are well beyond the rainbow.

I'm well aware that western readers are a dying breed. I'm probably one of the contributors to that death of a breed. I don't use a dictionary, by the way. I like to trace the cathexis of a word back to its origins. I want to now the meaning of words and how they got into our language. I want to reveal the powerful mystery of a word through its use in a living, growing language. I want to make the colors dance and merge and flow like a river, teeming with life, in the deepest recesses of the human mind.

And, so far, I've been lucky. I still have my own limited vocabulary.

And, so far, nobody's tried to take it away from me.

Write on, then, and fearlessly use that wonderful vocabulary our language has given you.



Blogger Our Money Staff said...

I just found your website and now I'm off to Amazon to look up your books. Thank you for that wonderful post.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Ashvattaman said...

Hi Jory,

I'm surprised that reading remains so popular, given the aversion to vocabulary. In addition to what you've mentioned, I've found a new trend in which readers (and movie goers) seem to demand that every tiny mystery be thoroughly explained. An example is the Lord of the Rings--in the books, a great deal of matters were left in the dark for our speculation and wonder. In the recent movie series, no loose end was allowed to dangle. People feel cheated if they have to speculate.

5:00 PM  

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