Lexical bling: Vocabulary display and social status

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A visitor from another galaxy, or perhaps just from another century, would notice that civilized people these days are obsessed with the rate of vocabulary display as a symbol of social status.  The latest symptom of this obsession is Matt Daniels, "The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop", May 2014:

Literary elites love to rep Shakespeare’s vocabulary: across his entire corpus, he uses 28,829 words, suggesting he knew over 100,000 words and arguably had the largest vocabulary, ever.  

I decided to compare this data point against the most famous artists in hip hop. I used each artist’s first 35,000 lyrics. That way, prolific artists, such as Jay-Z, could be compared to newer artists, such as Drake.

Now, it has long been known that vocabulary knowledge is a decent indicator of social status. Thus Mary Jean Schulman and Robert J. Havighurst, "Relations between ability and social status in a midwestern community. IV: Size of vocabulary", Journal of Educational Psychology, 1947:

The Seashore-Eckerson Test of Vocabulary was given to all children born in 1932 and to other 9th and 10th grade children in a certain typical midwestern community. The scores correlated .79 with scores on Thurstone V Factor and .75 with scores on the Iowa Silent Reading Test. The coefficient of correlation of vocabulary size with socioeconomic status was .46 ± .08. No reliable differences were found between boys and girls, or between urban and rural pupils.

Here are their results:

Many studies, some of them much larger, have reliably replicated this general pattern. And as other studies and common sense tell us,  them that's got it, flaunt it — the differences in lexical bank-account size are typically displayed in usage.

You've probably heard about Providence Talks, an effort to change this correlation on the theory that it's due (at least to a significant extent) to differences in how much parent talk to their children in the first couple of years of life. I don't have time today to explore Matt Daniels' vocabulary-display rap battle, or the Providence Talks enterprise, or the curious implicit relationship between them; so for the moment, here are a few relevant links:

"Word counts", 11/28/2006
"Britain's scientists risk becoming hypocritical laughing-stocks, research suggests", 12/16/2006
"Cultural specificity and universal values", 12/22/2006
"Vicky Pollard's Revenge", 1/2/2007
"Ask Language Log: Comparing the vocabularies of different languages", 3/31/2008
"Betting on the poor boy: Whorf strikes back", 4/5/2009
"Nick Clegg and the Word Gap", 10/16/2010

But I'll be back.



  1. gribley said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    I loved this when I first saw it, and I'm pleased that he added a bunch of rappers to v2. Some of the new additions (like Del) are obvious wordsmiths.

    Unfortunately the new chart is much more difficult to navigate than the old one, and it makes the whole experience of exploring this data much less fun.

  2. Mark F. said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

    The whole Shakespeare's-vocabulary-was-the-largest-ever thing is probably a myth. It's inherently implausible, given how many more English words there are now for people to know, and how suspiciously perfect it is for the most highly regarded author to also have the highest vocabulary. Recent attempts have been made to estimate the vocabularies of other writers of his day, and one paper ("Shakespeare's Vocabulary: Did It Dwarf All Others", by Elliott and Valenza) estimates that Milton may have known twice as many words. See also this link: http://www.dispositio.net/archives/501.

    Shakespeare had a ton of stuff come down to us, and it's received a vastly disproportionate level of attention. Now, though, in the days of computers, when people look at blocks of text of the same size from different authors, Shakespeare's variety of word use is pretty normal. Doesn't mean he didn't use the words better than the others, but that's harder to quantify.

  3. Adam Funk said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 4:15 am

    "It pays to increase your word power", as Reader's Digest used to say.

  4. Graeme said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 7:42 am

    'It pays to increase your word power' inverts cause and effect; unless you think snobs will elevate you based on your vocabulary.

    I would have thought rappers and hip-hoppers would blow away the correlation by showing that it's possible to play with language in the cauldron without possessing the socio-economic advantage of a houseful of dictionaries and books.

  5. Marek said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    I love the idea. But I wouldn't say the author buys into the obsession with word counts, he makes that point pretty clear ("Think of this as a data-point that sparks interesting discussion about hip hop and word-usage, and absolutely not a conclusive argument for rapper x is better than rapper y.").

    I also like the clear explanation of how he counted word types. That was the first issue to come to my mind: how much of the variation could come from different conventions of rendering AAVE pronunciation and slang terms.

    [(myl) There's also the issue of styles with a refrain vs. those without one; and the typical length of refrains vs. verses; etc.]

  6. D.O. said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

    Prof. Liberman has promised us a post about the size of his own vocabulary a good while ago… Not that I am making any demands, of course.

  7. D.O. said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    Counting different word forms and spellings as different words is a lazy way to do research. Yeah, it is simpler and can be all done as a night-snack experiment, but c'mon. On the other hand, counting the same token playing different grammatical roles as one word is also a bit suspect. Also, as Mr. Daniels himself writes, compound nouns can be a thing as well and, as he doesn't write, verbs with different preposition combinations may be reasonably counted as separate entities. And you don't need a big vocabulary to be expressive as the famous crime-scene reconstruction scene from The Wire shows.

    To sum it up, I have to get back to work and stop obsessing about a joke.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 6:26 pm

    @Graeme: 'It pays to increase your word power' inverts cause and effect

    I occasionally read writing/language forums used by ESL learners, and find it depressing that this fallacy still seems to be taught: that using a large vocabulary is good in itself – regardless of appropriateness for context and register. You don't run into the truth that there are words that it won't harm you to know, but which will mark you out as a pompous twit (even to educated speakers) if you try using them.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 2:56 am

    Vocabulary display has actually been something of a social issue over my life; people are often insulted when I use a word they don't know. But I don't see it as an "if you've got it, flaunt it" phenomenon; I see it as saying the word that comes into my mind. I just said the following to my mother:

    "I'm aware that a saline IV is ineffective, but I'd like the imprimatur of 'a dentist said this'"

    And obviously I don't need to show off vocabulary to her; she's known me all my life. This was one reason, as a teacher in a school meant to send students abroad, I found talking to Chinese teenagers so charming; they had a tendency to come out with english words they'd just looked up in a dictionary that had the correct meaning while being fairly unusual in day-to-day American speech… and if I used unusual words to them, they just put it down to the language barrier rather than me being an insufferable show-off. Overlooking some time spent consulting dictionaries, talking to them was like talking to someone who naturally understood the words I naturally use — more comfortable than talking to many Americans. :/

  10. Baylink said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    I am curious (no, not 'yellow', 'myself') whether "them as has, uses" has any connection to Whorf's Hypothesis, to the degree that that hasn't been debunked (which I vaguely remember happening here).

    On a related topic, I wonder what correlation complicated sentence structures have to the things mooted here as being correlated to vocabulary…

    And whether either correlates to however we're measuring basic intelligence these days.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 11:39 am

    Not sure how you could get the data but I think it would be very interesting if you could get 35,000-word chunks of various of the rappers in the study engaged in "off-stage" conversational interaction with various different sorts of interlocutors (family members, managers/accountants/lawyers, mechanics/bartenders, etc.) and see if a similarly-wide range of vocabulary size obtains (with the same individuals at the same points in the range) or whether there's more convergence, with the first study showing more about different approaches to performance style than baseline vocabulary size.

  12. Fabrizio said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    It's interesting that there are no comments on the value or etymological history of these words. It seems that everyone is just comparing quantity rather than quality.

    Furthermore, if one has a prodigious vocabulary, but doesn't use it, then what's the point. Keep in mind, in order to retain a challenging vocabulary one cannot just transcribe the words, one must also use them in discourse.

    Possessing a good vocabulary and using it does not involve good or bad behavior; it's just a demonstration of one's education. I don't find that dumbing down one's speech pattern is a very productive endeavor. Young people learn new words by what they read and hear. If what they hear are Rap lyrics and what they read are tweets, text messages and e-mails, you can be certain that what they will achieve is a limited and deficient vocabulary.

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