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Head Full of Words

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The average adult knows approximately 12,000 to 35,000 words of his/her native language (depending on level of education). That includes all the words he/she regularly uses (active vocabulary), and all those he/she might never use, but understands the meaning of (passive vocabulary) should someone slip one into a conversation, e.g., “vouchsafe”… does anyone actually ever say vouchsafe these days? I heard my grandfather use it once, but he was 200 years old and people spoke like that back in Dickens’ day. And, of course, if you speak any other languages, your knowledge of words will be even greater than those numbers mention at the top of this item. All of the words you know are inside your head, and it’s long fascinated linguists as to where exactly they are located. Is a certain part of your brain a dictionary? Is there a chunk of your gray matter that functions as a lexical database? It turns out (see the above video), and what has always been expected by linguists, that meaning came first, and as you pick up the words to denote each meaning, that’s where the word is. Your head is quite simply full of words.

Stephen Ross

Stephen Ross

Author, film maker, musician. My greatest claim to musical fame was once telling Stevie Ray Vaughan that I played guitar, and that I planned to steal his riffs.
Stephen Ross

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2 comments on “Head Full of Words
  1. benteh on said:

    Wooh! That is pretty cool!
    Wonder what my bi/trilingual brain would look like in this. There are a lot of words that are identical but have different meanings in English and Scandinavian languages. Is there perhaps an overlap? Will words group differently? Will the jump from one language to another have an “interpreter” in the brain, or will my brain just be a mess, and the only order is created in the ability to put into context? (this makes most sense to me). When I go abroad for a certain time, my brain runs at top speed, and I do not sleep very well for a few days. Then it quiets down, and I start to think in english automatically.

    Technically, though, they have not really found the “home” of these words in the brain; where they “live”. They have located activity from hearing the words. And presumably, the research was about hearing single words. It would be really brilliant if they read ambiguous texts to the lab rats, and see if the activity would go ping-pong around the brain, until a satisfactory interpretation (and grouping) was found. Wonder if it corresponds to the same areas, when we retrieve them? If I use the word “top” in the context of geography, will it be (in that instant) unavailable for interpretation from other word-groups? That might account for people being good at word-play: having faster access to multiple contexts for a word.

    More research!

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    • They haven’t found “their home”, but they have found where “they work”; and perhaps that is the nature of language; that the concept is inherent (trying to remember Chomsky’s Universal Grammar) and that the words are later added to the concept. And different parts of the brain deal with different concepts, so a word like “light” can hold down jobs in multiple locations. I think the mind is still very much an undiscovered country, but a reasonable road map is starting to come together. And indeed, more research.

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