Pointless Vocabulary Diversity and Grammatical Structure


Geoff Pullum looked here for a discussion of useless vocabulary and weakened sentence structure in schoolbooks, but didn’t find it. If not here, then where?

I was recently browsing (I’ll tell you why some other time) in my long-neglected copy of The Basis and Essentials of German by Charles Duff and Richard Freund (Thomas Nelson, London, third edition 1945), and a polemical section in the introduction happened to catch my eye. It was a tirade against the practices of language teachers and examination compilers with regard to vocabulary range. Duff and Freund stress learning the most essential words in the language together with the grammatical “methods of forming derivatives and compounds,” because (especially in a language like German) the combination of the two will equip you quite rapidly with what you most need. They add:

Given a list of the words found to be of greatest use, it is rather a waste of time to learn miscellaneous odds and ends of vocabulary — as is the time-honoured custom. It is even foolish to bother about such oddments when there must exist grave doubt that they will ever afterwards be required; or, as they are rarely encountered, retained in the memory.

Yet among the vocabulary covered in a single section of one of the best German textbooks, published by a leading publisher and widely used in schools (they politely decline to name it), they found words meaning “fatty degeneration”; “to turn brutal”; “to invest with a fief”; “to cover with a texture”; “to get by sneaking”; “to stultify”; “to make narrow”; “obscuration”; “to snuffle at”; “to touch in passing”; “to hurt oneself by lifting”; and others similarly arbitrary. “The sheer absurdity of it becomes overwhelming,” they say.

They also looked through a random public examination paper set in England to test knowledge of French:

Within less than a minute [...] we found a French word which is not in the Larousse dictionary nor in the bigger Gasc; and others which would never be met with in a lifetime’s reading. We did not pursue the matter further, from sheer disgust. [...] The waste of time represented by the learning of quite unnecessary material is tragic.

It’s a fair point. Laypeople so often think of languages not the way linguists see them (as structured systems into which words can be slotted to make expressions of propositional thoughts) but as big bags of words. Learning speed is gauged by rate of lexical acquisition, level of attainment is judged by vocabulary size, languages are essentially equated with the contents of their dictionaries. Grammar, by contrast, is seen as a small set of fiddly pedantic details.

Duff and Freund’s rant reminded me of something I read much more recently concerning reading materials currently used in classes for native English speakers in America. It argued that complexity of sentence structure in school readers had been steadily decreasing, while difficult vocabulary of the most useless kind had been expanding to include rare culture-specific terms from languages of Asian, African, and Amerindian ethnic groups that are included in readers and comprehension exams to ensure ethnic diversity. The result was starting to look like an education that equipped children with technical terms in Samoan or Hopi culture but left them incapable of dealing with the syntactic structure of Dickens.

I thought I knew where I had read this: I had a clear memory of its being in Diane Ravitch’s book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003). But it was a false memory. I hunted through it to find the discussion and there it was, gone. She doesn’t even hint at the topic. She concentrates on documenting the tabooing of a large array of words, phrases, and topics under the influence of right-wing and left-wing groups and ethnic communities – vocabulary restriction rather than augmentation. She never mentions extraneous loanwords or decreasing syntactic complexity.

I need your help, readers. What is it that I am vaguely remembering? Where was it that I saw a careful discussion, with copious exemplification, of school reading materials involving an increase in useless alien vocabulary accompanied by a decrease in syntactic richness of sentence structure?

The question I’m asking is an excellent example of a question you cannot ask Google. Searches on keyword sets like {increase useless vocabulary decrease sentence complexity} come up with hundreds of thousands of hits containing all sorts of academic flotsam and jetsam, but they have proved useless in finding the book or article that lingers anonymously in my memory. It’s out there somewhere. Can you find it for me and let me know in the comments area below?

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