One of the characteristics of the heroic age was what scholars call the heroic boast—the bold declaration of what a warrior has done and is about to do. Beowulf does this in his great saga. This tradition has lived on in American folklore in the tall-tales of Daniel Boone and Pecos Bill. We often see this in sports as well. But Beowulf, unlike many athletes today, not only possessed extraordinary strength but great eloquence. We are told that when greeted by the coast guard of Hrothgar, Beowulf “unlocked his word-hoard.” Although we may still have some of the heroic boast, the trash-talking lacks the resources of a good “word-hoard.”
One study says that although the vocabulary of schoolchildren in 1945 amounted to 25,000 words, students in 1992 were using only about 10,000 words. Today I mentioned the third-person omniscient point of view as one way writers tell stories. Half the class did not know the word omniscient. Fewer and fewer of my students have actually read books that were not textbooks. In Oregon one can graduate from college without having ever read Shakespeare or any other literature. Many of my students have few words in their hoard.
Throughout the story of Beowulf we are told not only of his great courage and extraordinary strength (he tore off Grendel’s arm), but of his wisdom and eloquence. We still celebrate the first, but not so much the latter. Especially in the western tradition, we have celebrated the stoic and laconic heroes like Clint Eastwood (my generation) and Vin Diesel. Even in real life, actors often disappoint with their inability to express themselves without cliches.
Does the diminishing word-hoard matter? Yes, because we not only express ourselves with words, we think with words. Words and the distinctions they make determine what we are able to express. Our thoughts and emotions are impoverished and enfeebled when we lack the right words. A small vocabulary leaves us in a fog of confusion that makes us easy for the words of others to manipulate us. A small “word-hoard” may be a greater danger to us than the monster Beowulf faced.