A fact about the South American country of Suriname – the lingua franca of 500,000 inhabitants of this country is Sranan Tongo, also known as Taki Taki. Why is that relevant? Because Taki Taki, is listed as the language with the fewest words, at only 340.
By comparison English, widely recognised as the language using the most, has more than 170,000 active words based on a dictionary count (not that I sat down and actually counted from A to Zyzzyva). How many of those do you think you use? It’s generally thought that adults have a vocabulary knowledge of anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000. Reading this, you will most likely be at the upper end of that scale.
Our daily lives are filled with words, most of them empty or repeated or combined with a well-worn banality. This is perhaps why we are so stirred when someone is able to harness our language and utilise it to great effect. Used in the right way, language has the power to move people, provoking emotion and empathy, inspiring them to acts both great and terrible.
When the language of politicians counted
It wasn’t too long ago that the bragging rights (for want of a better term) for powerful speeches belonged to those designated as being ‘qualified’ to be making them. Churchill, Kennedy, Obama.
If the whole painful exercise of politics – particularly in the US and the UK – has taught us anything in the past three years it is that politicians, with few exceptions, are losing their power to control through language. The political speech as an institution has found itself more and more debased by attempts at shock and that have divided rather than unified the crowd.
In recent weeks it has been the language of two non-politicians that has filled this space. With very simple and straightforward language, Father Martin Magill was able to summon the thoughts of many when he asked why it took the death of the journalist Lyra Mckee to unite political leaders in Northern Ireland. The poignancy of his simple language brought a spontaneous standing ovation at the funeral ceremony and left those leaders looking somewhat impotent in the process.
Meanwhile, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden gave a voice to the environmental movement. Greta Thunberg has been in the UK and has had the ear of not only Extinction Rebellion protestors but British politicians. Her curiously effective oratory powers are best illustrated by a TED Talk which helped to establish her as a voice that needed to be heard. Again, it is the simplicity of her language which, combined with the innocence of her years, is proving to be so potent and transfixing her audiences.
The thing about language is that it is omnipresent. We use it but are rarely aware of it, until it impacts on us. If it was that simple to harness its power then no doubt we would all be doing it, but in the meantime, it’s worth studying those who have the knack of bringing our language to life so effectively.
One thing to remember though, just because you are speaking in a language that has over 170,000 words at its disposal doesn’t mean that you have to use them all in a single presentation or speech.