The word is a popular thing. Charismatic, even. Of all the parts of our language, it sticks out grandly. As such, it’s the easiest to tell stories about: The provenance of the word “entrepreneur” is also a slice of economic history, while no one knows where the word “hobo” comes from. These narratives get most people as close as they’ll come to understanding language as a concrete thing. So here’s a new story you might not know about words: They’re working harder than ever before, corralled into new forms of work at which they are doomed to fail.
You might have heard about the “word gap” that low-income children are said to have. It occurs because their parents don’t talk to them in the same way that middle and high-income American parents talk to theirs. In the 1990s, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that low-income children hear 30 million fewer words in their first four years than middle and high-income children. This difference was hypothesized to lead to disadvantages, particularly in terms of school readiness, so it received a scary name: the “word gap.”
But in reality the gap was never about words. Instead, it was about the difference in the type of interactions between caregivers and children. This quality, though not exactly ephemeral, was certainly slippery: too slippery to capture in the ways that Hart and Risley wanted. So, in order to avoid disrupting family life by inserting observers into homes, Hart and Risley handed tape recorders (it was the early 1990s, remember) to the 42 families in the study, then transcribed their verbal behavior. In those days of relatively low computational power, the analysis included a few measures of content (such as whether child-directed speech was positive or negative) but focused mostly on brute counts of words. Lo, a gap was discovered.