Λεξιπενία

Most readers of this blog will be encountering its title for the first time. As far as naming conventions go, I plead unoriginality: striving for the exotic, it’s potentially just arch and pseudy. But as I like my obscurantism unfashionable, here’s some background.

“Lexipenia” is one of my favourite words. It’s a Modern Greek term that literally means “vocabulary deficit” or, better still, a “poverty of words”. I find it delightful for three main reasons. Firstly, when transliterated into English, it belongs to a rare class of word that is the exact opposite of what it means: the autoantonym. Any speaker wielding “lexipenia” surely possesses sizeable riches. Yet – and this is the second reason – the underlying sense of a “poverty of words” is just so widely, so poetically, applicable to all kinds of experience. Taken together, these give the third reason: the irony that there is something of a mot juste, however metaphoric, for a situation in which one feels lexically impoverished. Perhaps stupefied, certainly dismayed. Nothing falls from the inverted purse.

As a student of literature living in forn parts, and a lover of languages at that, I have frequently felt the bite of many species of lexpenia. In learning a new language, core vocabulary acquisition is a major hurdle. Syntax can, in principle, be mastered relatively quickly, furnishing reading and parsing knowledge, even if it cannot be faithfully reproduced ex tempore. Yet to comprehend roughly 80% of a text one requires a vocabulary of roughly 2,000 words. To get that to 90% requires 4,000.[1] The first of these figures is roughly equivalent to the expectations of the English A-level, or “B2” by the CEFR. Despite implying that every fifth word remains unknown, it’s a decent base for relatively unimpeded periphrastic conversation, and for general comprehension. Nonetheless, before approaching this level a language flounders, with many quotidian expressions being wholly new discoveries. Attempting any kind of conversation with only 1,000 words is simply goshdarned peinlich. Furthermore, it forestalls the possibility of productive language “tandems” and the like. This rudimentary lexipenia is, sadly, only overcome via tedious slogging. And should one plunge into the literature of a foreign language, 4,000 words quickly seem insufficient: the first couple of novels are rarely smooth rides. However, even once when one is a fluent speaker and reader, something is still missing: the easy eloquence of a mother tongue, particularly when it comes to nuanced thought and humour.

Yet the name of this blog is also a gross appropriation. The Modern Greek word is a recent coinage and has very specific connotations and context. They are, however, somewhat unhappy, so I make no apology for uprooting it – its lustrous, metaphoric morphemes have in any case already transplanted themselves into my experience and coloured my quotidiana. Still, it’s worth saying a few words about the passage in which I first came across “lexipenia”. From Peter Mackridge, Language and National Identity in Greece, 1766-1976 (OUP, 2009):

In 1986 there was a public outcry when the examiners in the national university entrance examinations announced that in their opinion the standard of Greek in the candidates’ scripts gave cause for serious concern. One aspect that caused widespread dismay was the large proportion of candidates who appeared not to know the meaning of two nouns, namely αρωγή [succour] and ευδοκίμηση [prosperity]. Greek newspapers carried extensive reports of this announcement on their front pages, and the ensuing journalistic investigation and public debate went on for several months. It became customary for Greeks to complain that the vocabulary of young people had been reduced to a few hundred words (this spawned a new and widely used term, lexipenía), and that the younger generation did not employ syntax; the consequence of this situation – Korais’ argument that a corrupt language harms the mind – was that young people’s minds were in danger of becoming atrophied as a result of using an atrophied language.

Many Greeks, including members of the government, attributed what they saw as the decline of the Greek language to the abolition of Ancient Greek lessons at the gymnásio. For this reason the chief demand voiced by such people was that the ancient language should be reintroduced as a compulsory subject into the gymnásio, since it was only by studying Ancient Greek that one could understand the ‘roots’ of Modern Greek and realize, through etymology, the ‘correct’ and ‘true’ meanings of Modern Greek words. (p.325)

Strictly speaking, then, “lexipenia” is a pejorative word that refers to the supposedly atrophied language of younger generations. This is not, however, just any querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, but a very specific and complex debate relating to Greek national identity. I’m not qualified to pronounce upon these issues definitively, and to do so would mean a considerable digression. The fact is, though, that “lexipenia” is a word of conservative nationalists.

Adamantios Korais (1748–1833) was the central figure of the Enlightenment in Greece, and one of the most important writers to link language and national identity. He sought to produce a standardized version of the written language. This is quite a sensible aim, but at the same time, Korais was preoccupied with purifying Greek of what he saw as vulgar colloquialisms that resulted from foreign contamination. The argument referred to by Mackridge lies at the foundation of Korais’ work on the Greek language. It is not, however, a general thesis about how language shapes our world and hence functions also as an ethical force; rather, Korais’ notions of “corruption” are themselves riddled with axiological prejudice: whilst worshipping the Classical period and attributing the decline of Greece to the absence of democracy under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule, Korais also identified the resulting foreign influences upon Greek with moral and cognitive degeneracy – a descent into barbarism. Push the argument in this direction – effectively declaring that sociolects can be “wholly false” – and you’re well into David-Starkey-on-Newsnight territory (and already dead).

Perhaps this is reason enough to appropriate “lexipenia” and adopt its transliteration into English. Another is that, in its broadest metaphorical sense, the situation of being “lost for words” is both integral to our being and to any discourse about, say, artworks that explore it. Consider talking to a psychotherapist. This doesn’t have to be full-on analyst-analysand free-association. Any surrogate will do. A friend, for example. Consider trying to articulate precise feelings about some private tumult, the self-displacing source of a disappointment or fear. Lexipenia. Words, as public tokens, can barely cling to the intensely private. Indeed, meaning skepticism arises in relation to descriptions of inner experience, whose more intricate metaphors are the product of a kind of lexipenia. The possibility of such skepticism is in fact constitutive of these experiences. And yet we understand each other (or in this case, at least, I hope we do).  Consider now trying to say just why something is beautiful – or if not beautiful, for risk of eliding the issue with that of subjective universal judgments, just why it coheres. The supplementary element that escapes paraphrase is often what bewitches us most in great art. Similarly, the most profound articulations frequently arise when running against the walls of language. In so far as lexipenia is constitutive of these phenomena, we should both embrace it and struggle with it. I guess that is what I hope to be doing in this blog.


[1] These statistics can often be found in the introductions to vocabulary lists. I’ve encountered them here and here. A far more exhaustive account of vocabulary acquisition, from a pedagogical perspective, is given by I.S.P. Nation and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in learning languages.

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