Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

vocabulary

 

Tomorrow marks the seventh anniversary of my sharing my words about words in this space with you, my wordstruck readers. You’re the cream in my coffee, the syrup on my pancakes, the cherry on my sundae and the jewels in the crown of my mission of teachership.

Something magic resides in the number seven. There are seven days in a week, seven continents, seven colors of the rainbow, seven notes in the diatonic scale, seven letters in the Roman numeral system, seven dwarfs, seven samurai, seven deadly sins, seven pillars of wisdom, seven hills of Rome and seven wonders of the world.

The seventh anniversary of this column, then, is a good time to think about language and creativity.

For most of us language is like the air we breathe. Like air, language is invisible and all around us. We need it to live, yet we take it for granted. If, however, we pause and examine our language thoughtfully, we discover that the ordinary language user is astonishingly creative. Without realizing it, we all spend most of our waking hours inventing language.

Incredible as it may seem at first thought, practically every sentence that you speak and write during your lifetime has never been spoken or written before in human history. Except for stock phrases and conventional remarks, such as “Thanks a lot,” “How’s it going ?” and “Have a nice day,” almost all of your speech and writing consists of sentences that you have made up. You are a language inventor.

Consider, for example, an experiment conducted by Richard Ohmann, a professor at Wesleyan University, who placed before 25 people a simple cartoon and asked them to describe in a sentence the situation the drawing portrayed. Not surprisingly, the 25 descriptions that Professor Ohmann received were all different from each other:

“A bear is occupying a phone booth, while a tourist impatiently waits in line.”

“A man who was driving along the road has stopped and is waiting impatiently for a grizzly bear to finish using the public phone.”

“An antsy traveler waits as a bear chatters gaily in a highway telephone booth.”

Then Professor Ohmann used a computer to determine how many grammatical sentences in English could be generated from the raw materials in just those 25 sentences about the agitated tourist and the bear in the telephone booth.

How many would you guess? Five thousand? Ten thousand? Maybe twenty-five thousand?

Professor Ohmann’s computer yielded 19.8 billion! — nearly 20 billion English sentences that depict one limited state of affairs culled from only 25 different statements. 19.8 billion is a very large number. In fact, it would take about 40 human life spans to speak 19.8 billion sentences, even at high speed.

Other computer studies have shown that it would take ten trillion years — two thousand times the estimated age of the earth — to utter all the possible English sentences that use exactly 20 words. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any 20-word sentence an individual speaks has ever been spoken previously. The same conclusion holds true, of course, for sentences of greater length and for most shorter sentences as well. That is why almost every sentence that you are reading in this column, as well as in all the books, newspapers and magazines that have been written and are yet to be written, is expressed, or will be expressed, in its exact form for the very first time.

There is one more intriguing fact to consider. Not only do you spend your days reading sentences that you have never before encountered, but you understand almost every one of them. Part of your humanness is your ability both to invent new sentences and to comprehend the verbal inventions of other people.

Linguist Noam Chomsky maintains that “when we study human language, we are approaching what some might call ‘the human essence,’ the distinct qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.” If you fill your speech and writing with prefabricated clichés, ramshackle abstractions and leaden expressions, you are denying the abounding creativity that is inherent in the very nature of human language. Thus it is that the manner in which you utter words, write words and receive words throughout your life determines how effectively and resourcefully you carry on the business of being a member of the human race.