Have you ever taken your vocabulary under serious consideration? Statistically, the average person only uses about 3,000 words on a regular basis. Out of the approximate 60,000 words people are likely to know relatively well, that's not a lot. To make it worse, many people find themselves accustomed to a limited vocabulary in some sense. Some choose not to curse or swear. Others may speak entirely in slang or refined speech. The term "word poverty" has been thrown around recently in regards to the fact that many English-speakers do not employ a majority of the language in their everyday speech.
Even so, how often do we take the time to think about what we say before we say it? "Think before you speak" is a well-known saying, but is usually used in reference to what you say, not necessarily with which words you say it. I definitely struggle with taking the time to think about my speech before it comes pouring out of my mouth. Certainly, I rarely take the time to ponder over my vocabulary unless I'm writing a term paper. It's just not something we are forced to think about on a regular basis.
Now, imagine something a little more challenging: using words made up of only particular letters of the alphabet. Take the letter e, for instance. It is the most commonly used letter of the alphabet, and I've already employed it twenty-four times in this paragraph alone. If I took it away, I'd definitely have to take the time to consider my word choice and how else I might write what I am trying to convey to you.
In Mark Dunn's book, Ella Minnow Pea, he creatively engages such a challenge among the residents of the fictional island of Nollop. The island, named after Nevin Nollop (supposed creator of the pangram, "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"), is a rather picturesque place that has not been permeated by such advanced technology as computers or phones. In fact, the people there immerse themselves in the liberal arts and are quite passionate about the elevation and refinement of language.
But this happy setting is soon turned on its head when the statue of Nollop (underneath which are tiles that form the aforementioned pangram) in the town square loses one of its letter tiles. The island's council takes this to be a sign that the fallen letter should be removed from all written and spoken language. But, as more letters begin to fall, and the consequences for using the banned letters become more severe, the island soon finds itself under a plight of serious authoritarianism. To keep their entire language from becoming obsolete, the community must produce a pangram that is shorter than the one of Nollop's creation before time runs out.
The series of events leading up to this dilemma are portrayed in Dunn's book through missives between various characters. As more letters fall, Dunn omits them from the correspondences, creating an intellectually intriguing story with rich vocabulary and witty characters. Not only does he explore the expansive abilities of the English language to convey meaning, but he also delves into the potential ability our language has to alter a society's entire belief system. It would be a sad day when our words were censored not only for their content, but also for the letters that make them words to begin with. But this is a challenge the citizens of Nollop face, one which has intriguing solutions.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book when it was first published in 2001. I was drawn to it because of the interesting way it was written, with missing letters and multiple meanings behind what was said. But considering I was eleven at the time, I don't believe I fully understood all of the political and social implications the book covered. When I reread it recently, I found those aspects just as intriguing as the literary facets of the novel, prompting me to write this post.
While this book may not suit everyone's taste, it brings up a number of interesting issues that we don't encounter every day. It's also a short and easy read - at least until you have to start deciphering letters at the end that contain worse vocabulary and spelling than the average text message. I would definitely recommend this book to you, or at least ask you to consider the words you are using and what impact they truly can have.