The iTunes store is offering me the app Vocabador (released 9/6/11), designed to increase your vocabulary — yet another entry in a very crowded field of materials for this purpose, so it comes with a gimmick.

From the website:

The Vocabador iPhone application is ideal for students studying for the SAT, the GRE or for anyone looking to boost their vocabulary.  Combining the theme of Lucha Libre wrestling with over 400 powerful vocabulary words, Vocabador offers a fresh approach to learning that will help you build some serious vocabulary muscle!

Two modes of use:

1.  Vocab Training:  Allows you to study all 400+ vocabulary words using virtual flashcards, broken down into three levels of difficulty

2.  Vocab Challenge:  Once you are ready to test your vocabulary prowess, you can switch to Vocab Challenge mode.  There are a total of 12 wrestlers you can choose to battle, organized by vocabulary weight-class.

Two customer reviews, one tongue-in-cheek critical, the other apparently straight-faced:

I was lugubriously discontent with Apple’s vocabulary apps until Vocabador. It is ambrosially delightful and tickles the minds. This app allows me to appear even more supercilious than I already am!

Fantastic solution to learning vocabulary! My kids and I really enjoy it — we’re smarter already. 🙂

Other apps are available, many with exams in mind. Among them: Vocabulary Power Plus, aimed at the new SAT exam; Vocabulary Ace; Exam Vocabulary Builder; and GRE and GMAT Vocabulary Builder. For further resources, google on {“vocabulary building”}. A few sample pitches:

Regardless of your education level or age, will help you to master the words that are essential to academic and business success. (link)

Get a Harvard Graduate’s Vocabulary in
only 15 minutes a day!

Fair or not, people make assumptions about your intelligence, your education and your capabilities by the words you use. Studies prove that a strong command of the English language is directly linked to career advancement, earnings and social success. To move ahead in your career, your vocabulary level must at least equal the average level of members of your profession. For you to excel, your vocabulary must surpass that of your colleagues. [] (link)

According to language expert W.B. Elley, “a rich vocabulary is a valuable asset and an important attribute of success in any walk of life.” In other words, your vocabulary plays a large role in determining if you will succeed in life or not. So it is crucial to begin building your vocabulary as early as possible, to ensure that you reach your full potential in your career, relationships and life in general. [] (link)

There’s a long tradition of self-improvement by vocabulary building — realized, for instance, in the Reader’s Digest feature “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power”:

[Wilfred J.] Funk [of Funk & Wagnalls fame] wrote numerous books on vocabulary and etymology aimed at a general audience. He favored descriptive linguistics over linguistic prescription, stating “Let’s throw the old textbooks out the window, along with the words correct and incorrect, because there’s really no such thing as grammar, but only an ever-changing language pattern formed by everyday usage”. In 1942, he co-wrote 30 Days to a more Powerful Vocabulary with Norman Lewis; total sales to 1968 were claimed at 4.7m. In 1945, he created the Reader’s Digest feature “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power”. His son Peter continued this from 1962 to 1998. (link)

(“Grammar” in this passage refers to what came to be called “prescriptive grammar” — what’s taught in “the textbooks”.)

Why this emphasis on vocabulary?

Part of the answer is that people tend to think of a language as its vocabulary, so mastering vocabulary is mastering the language. Geoff Pullum has inveighed against this idea for years. Some Language Log postings:

[Don] Watson, of course, like just about every non-linguist who ever writes about language, presupposes that a language is just a big bag of words. Barbara Scholz and I have attacked that idea (in Nature 413, 27 September 2001, p.367), but it’s not that we think anyone will listen or anything will change. Everybody thinks that the key thing about a language is which words it has — and above all, how many. [GKP] (link)

Wordsmiths in sense 1 are like coppersmiths and silversmiths: they craft things from some material — copper, silver, words… The image here is that a language is just a “big bag of words”, as Geoff Pullum put it …; the craft of writing is then a matter of having a very big bag and of picking well from it.  Writers are word-slingers. [AMZ] (link)

Everybody sees language as just words, words, words. A human language, as most people see it, is simply a Big Bag O’Words (BBoW). [GKP] (link)

A language, for Allan Brown, is just a big bag of words, and Gaelic hasn’t got enough of them to count as a language at all. [GKP] (link)

Two things here. First, once you treat a language as a big bag of words, then the size of the bag becomes important: whole languages can differ in size; varieties (“dialects”) of a language can differ in size; and the varieties of individuals (“idiolects”) can differ in size. It follows that some of these differences, especially the last, can be altered by intervention, in particular by teaching and learning.

Second, it becomes important how you estimate the size of the bag. And this is something of a morass, as linguists have pointed out for years (it’s a perennial topic on Language Log). In the context of the Vocabulary Building enterprise, in fact the question is not really how big the bag is, but how big one part of it is: the “fancy words” part, containing relatively infrequent words suitable for formal contexts and largely drawn ultimately from Greco-Latin sources. Things like lugubrious, ambrosial, and supercilious. (And for that matter, discontent rather than unhappiness.) It’s your ability to sling these words that’s supposed to bring success in school and business, so these are the words that word power exercises are aimed at.

There’s a huge literature on the association between vocabulary knowledge — of the right kind — and academic success (there might also be studies of the association between vocabulary knowledge and business success, but I don’t know of any), originating with the vocabulary sections of IQ tests like the Stanford-Binet (I recall being tested on the word amanuensis some 55+ years ago, in a version of the Stanford-Binet; I got it right, though I can recall only one occasion in the intervening years when it seemed like the right word to use). Such tests were intended as assessments of general intelligence, but the Word Power enterprise inverts things by turning the tests’ content into schemes for remediation (that is, improvement): if people with bigger vocabularies are more successful academically, then we can improve the chances of other people by increasing their vocabulary. The whole program strikes me as dubious at almost every point, but the public long ago bought into the Word Power mystique, so I suppose there’s not much point in objecting now.

Another reason for the emphasis on vocabulary is that vocabulary knowledge can (apparently) be tested so easily, via the ubiquitous multiple-choice test. Other sorts of linguistic competence — including knowledge of syntactic constructions and discourse forms, and indeed much knowledge about words, including the sociocultural and contextual conditions on their use and also which syntactic constructions they can be used in — are much harder to test for, but raw vocabulary knowledge looks easy, so people go for that. Which leads to Word Power tests, which are, in effect, looking for the lost key under the streetlight because that’s where there’s light.

(I’m not saying that words — even seeing a word merely as a pairing of a spelling with a definition, as so many people are inclined to do — aren’t important, just that vocabulary knowledge is such a small part of linguistic competence that it seems grotesque to focus so heavily on words, words, words.)


4 Responses to “BBoW”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Maybe another reason for the emphasis on vocabulary is inappropriate analogy with experience of learning a second language. When speaking a foreign language, I feel more anxiety and frustration not knowing The Right Word than not knowing The Right Syntax or Morphology. I feel that an extra 2000 French words would be more use to me than a proper command of the French subjunctive. (Though that comparison rather begs the question; would I trade for 100 words?)

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