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The Vocabulary Essay

The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our language; it shapes what we can know. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge. Vocabulary is the set of words used in language to communicate. They are the words that give meaning to a language. A study Building the Foundations of Literacy: The Importance of Vocabulary and spelling Development by Shane Templeton and John J. Pikulski says, ” words are the labels of thoughts and beliefs”. Vocabulary is and has been developed through the need to communicate things that people know and have experienced. Therefore it could be said that what we know develops vocabulary and language. However, a person who reads a lot is likely to know the meaning of many words and have a larger vocabulary than someone who does not. Words can have meanings that mean almost the same thing but differ slightly.

Hence by knowing, learning and understanding vocabulary a person may learn something new that he/she did not know even existed. For example in a large spread and globally used language like English, there may be words originating from different cultures. The English language has many words originating for instance, from Latin, like the words mass and communion have derived from the Latin words missa and communio. There are also many words in scientific language that originate from Latin, like sternum and appendix. Also, words relating to classical music have been borrowed from Italian language words, such as concerto, allegro, tempo and soprano. Hence there can be many words that have meaning for things that some English speakers may not even know about. English language is so widely spread that some cultures may not be familiar with classical music and therefore also be unaware of words relating to it.

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Evaluating whether vocabulary shapes what we know, the question of, what is knowing, evidently has to be taken into consideration. Can there be knowledge of something, without being able to express the “something” with vocabulary? As vocabulary is a way to communicate experiences and things we know, it could be said that what we know shapes our vocabulary, rather than vocabulary shaping what we know. For instance, the vocabulary of languages used by a Scandinavian minority of the Sami people can have vocabulary and words for describing natural phenomena that other languages or even the majority languages used in Scandinavia do not have. In fact, Mikael Svonni a professor from the Ume ½ University Department of Sami Studies, states in his article The Sami language-a historical mystery, that Sami languages have “many different words for snow depending on the conditions with respect to skiing, depth, new or old snow and grazing conditions”.

The Sami people have lived in conditions where snow is part of their everyday life, have developed their vocabulary to have several words for describing different kinds of snow. Hence the claim could be made that what we know shapes our vocabulary. The claim of what we know and experience developing our vocabulary can also however be flipped around. Vocabulary can familiarize people with new things and concepts they did not know existed. Taking the example of the languages of Sami people have a variety of words to describe different kinds of snow. Someone studying a Sami language can gain an understanding and ability to know and distinguish between different types of snow, whereas before he/she would have just seen it simply as snow. Also in a worldwide language, like English, there can be many words that have developed from different cultures and areas of the world, so hence there can be vocabulary and words, defining concepts unknown to some users of the English language.

Hence if someone was to develop their English language vocabulary they could learn new vocabulary defining things that they didn’t know anything about, things for instance originating from a different culture which would broaden and shape their range of knowledge. There are also certain groups in society that use vocabulary and jargon of their own, relating to what they do in their everyday life, for example, their job. The scientific and medical language used by doctors, nurses, scientists and others in the medical field have a lot of jargon and vocabulary of their own, which other people may not understand, like for instance the words sternum and appendix. These words derive from Latin and can be hard to understand for people who are not educated in science and its different areas. The word sternum for instance is a word used to describe the breastbone. A person who hasn’t studied human bone structure will not know the meaning of the word. This kind of vocabulary, language or jargon has developed through knowledge gained in a respective field of knowledge.

A doctor for instance will know vocabulary for human body parts or medicine, that someone who is not a doctor or not in the medical field would not.  The study of this vocabulary can however open and give new knowledge and understanding of this scientific or medical language. Jargon is present in many different fields of profession, not only science. Government officials, politicians, ministers, civil servants and generally people in the field of politics have their own type of jargon, which they use known as officialese. The language and vocabulary used is very official and has its own kind of formality, and just like scientific language, it contains vocabulary that carries knowledge specific to its field of use, which can be totally unknown to people who are not educated in a certain field of knowledge.

Is it however possible to know something, without being able to express it with language? In George Orwell’s novel, 1984 language is used in a totalitarian society as a means of controlling the society and its people. This is done with the idea that narrowing down, simplifying and destroying vocabulary would result in the narrowing down of people’s range of thought. This creation of a language, which in the novel is known as Newspeak, is done with the purpose of making the “wrong” kind of thought impossible. The word “bad” for instance is changed to “ungood”. This means that the word bad loses its meaning. Eventually, people would not know of the word “bad” and would not be able to think of anything as being bad, but rather as being “ungood”. Hence language can broaden or even shrink the range of things and knowing that we know.

This kind of formation of language and vocabulary is also present in real life. Not necessarily as a cause of societal control, like in 1984, but due to for instance the change of usage of language between different generations. This can be seen in the communication of young people and teenagers nowadays. There are clear differences in the ways teenagers and more elderly people talk. The Internet has had quite a large effect on the way young people communicate. From personal experience, I have seen how Internet language has become a part and is present in the everyday use of the vocabulary of many teenagers. In fact, I find myself using some of these terms occasionally. Words such as “LOL” and “OMG” are abbreviations used in conversations on the Internet, but which I also find many young people using in their everyday conversations. These abbreviations seem to have taken over and replaced other forms of expression. “LOL” is an abbreviation for the phrase “laughing out loud” or “lots of laughs”.

Hence people often use “LOL” when they find something funny. So instead of saying “that was funny” or “it was hilarious” young people tend to laugh and say “LOL”. The word “LOL” is in a way replacing other forms of expression and vocabulary. However, if something does exist people are most likely to develop a word for it. This can often be seen when scientists discover or invent something new. For example in the 18th and early 19th century James Watt played a significant part in the development of the steam engine. More specifically he developed the concept of horsepower. The SI unit of power became watt, named after its founder. Hence the gain of new knowledge created a new concept that was unknown and it was given a name, and a new word was formed. This has been the case in many scientific discoveries, for instance similarly to James Watt the SI unit of force, which is known as Newton was named after the scientist Isaac Newton.

The vocabulary we use does to some extent affect what people can know since vocabulary is developed to describe what we know and what we have experienced. However, vocabulary can also familiarize us with new knowledge that we did not know even existed. The world consists of different people from very different cultures, living conditions and lifestyles, which affect the experiences people have and the way they look at life. Since vocabulary is formed from the need to communicate experiences and what we know, languages spoken around the world can have very varying vocabularies that can contain words carrying unique and different information. Hence we can gain knowledge from learning vocabulary, and it can broaden our understanding of the world. However initially vocabulary is developed from our experiences and knowledge, so it could be said that we in a way live in symbiosis with vocabulary and language, as they are formed from our knowledge and rely on it to stay alive, whereas we can also gain knowledge ourselves from the vocabulary.

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