In the first two paragraphs of the second chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov uses eight words that I don't know the meaning of. Three are foreign words (two Latin, one apparently French) that he presumes (incorrectly in my case) that I, his reader, am educated enough to know; that leaves five words in English that might as well be Greek to me. And my vocabularly level is anywhere from the 92nd to the 97th percentile among American adults, depending on which test you trust. In most books, I won't encounter five words that are unknown to me in a whole chapter or even more, much less the first two paragraphs.
The more words a person knows in a given language, the better he or she can communicate...up to a point. As people get more and more high-vocabularied, the opposite begins to happen: they communicate less well with people, as, to more and more of the population, their sentences begin to resemble this one:
"It is noscible that the oporopolist is a papacolist."
Unless you have a much better grasp of obscure obsolete English words than most people, you won't know what that sentence says; and, indeed, words that are completely unknown to people read very much like words in a foreign language. You'll do better if you say, "You know, the fruit-seller loves the Pope." With simpler, more common words, that version communicates meaning to more people. Surprisingly, perhaps, writers, as a group, are not particularly high-vocabularied, and that's the reason. (Writers are much better that the general population, however, at using words precisely: they'll use the right word rather than what Twain called its "near cousin.")
Ezra Pound was one of the few people in the world who was as erudite and knew as many words as T.S. Eliot. Which is why Pound was supposed to have said, upon hearing the news of the death of Eliot: "Now who will get my jokes?"
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Dogman: "Sounds as if Nabokov's (and Rushdie's) book might be best read on a Kindle so those unfamiliar words can be easily defined by the built in dictionary.
"Back in the Dark Ages, when I took my first freshman English class in college, I distinctly remember how the instructor emphasized to the importance of communication. She lectured that communication is the purpose of language and communication is more important than precise grammar and a vast vocabulary. Her example sticks with me: 'If I pass out a written exam to the class and one student tells me "But I ain't got no pencil," that student has displayed remarkably poor grammar. However, that student has clearly communicated the fact that he has no pencil.'"
Mike replies: Ah, but that's not clear, I'm afraid. What if, say, the student who's speaking is one of the most intelligent and well-prepared students in the class, and another student nearby once came to a different exam with no pencil? It may be that all the students in the class have pencils for that particular exam, but the good student is taunting the poor student. I could think of other scenarios where that statement might not be communicating what your instructor claims it was.
Communication goes far beyond the immediate intended content of the message. For instance, when I met Gavin Donaldson the other day, his first words conveyed to me that he was from Australasia. Your instructor's pencil-less student, assuming the direct message is true and he's speaking naturally, has conveyed several indirect messages, such as that he is from a region where the particular ungrammatical construction he's used is idiomatic, and most likely either he has been under-educated or has no ability to adapt his style of speech so that it's appropriate for the situation in which he finds himself. And that he might be incompetent or minimally competent in that he has apparently come into an exam unprepared.
Discouragingly often, spoken and written words are intended to not communicate direct messages at all—for instance, an exceedingly long online document specifying terms and conditions, written in dense legalese—which you must accept before using certain software, for instance—might be specifically designed to get you to indicate that you have read it and understood it while actively discouraging you from doing either; or an opaque article of art criticism thick with specialized terms and/or terms with specialized meanings might be intended only to convey the message that the critic is smarter than you are and that you are not capable of understanding the insider expertise the critic is claiming for herself. The simple message of words is often not the only message, and communication is not always the goal of language. Communication is a complicated and subtle issue—which is what keeps linguists and semioticians busy, not to mention poets.
Minnow: "The original title for Speak, Memory was 'Speak, Mnemosyne' but his publishers dissuaded him to his later regret."