Loss of Words

In L.M. Sacasas’ latest The Convivial Society newsletter, he notes

…a shrinking lexicon of words related to sense experience. I’m relying here on an observation Ivan Illich makes in “Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show,” and, by extension, the sources he cites. “Dozens of words for shades of perception have disappeared from usage,” Illich notes. “For what the nose does, someone has counted the victims: Of 158 German words that indicate variations of smell, which Dürer’s [d. 1528] contemporaries used, only thirty-two are still in use. Equally, the linguistic register for touch has shriveled. The see-words fare no better.”¹

I would add to this, on a strictly anecdotal basis, a similarly diminishing lexicon of names for natural phenomena such as flora and fauna. Generic categories do a lot of work in ordinary speech: birds, bugs, trees, etc. More specific names seem to elude many of us.

Relatedly, while language tethered to the material world appears to diminish, language tethered to the virtual realm endlessly proliferates and fragments.

While the overall trend wouldn’t surprise me–you can say best what you do, and even then you have to practice saying it–I would be interested in confirming this phenomenon in a modern empirical setting. No one could go back and verify how many words for the birds and bees a medieval everyman would have used, but trends over even the last few decades might tell something.

And I would be surprised if all the senses suffered equally. As John Berger teaches, much of the modern world is an intensely visual culture, and even if we most people today see differently than their ancestors, there is an argument that the “ways of seeing” have proliferated.

And perhaps there are fewer words for, say, things smelled, because the range of things to smell has diminished in post-industrial modern settings.

Tags trends sense sight smell