Monday, February 15, 2010

Words, Vocabulary, and the One Month Novel

I'm into languages. No doubt about that. And I am an engineer, so I have a love of numbers, too. It's been for some time that I've been wondering about words and vocabulary. How many words are there in a work of fiction for example. I mean how many unique words. Is there any difference between different languages. I've been wondering if there are more words used in English than in Persian. I'm not talking about how many words each language has, or how many words can be made, but how many are actually used.

And then, there is the more difficult question of the difference between speaking and writing. In Persian, the written language is quite different with the spoken one. It is another question I've been wondering about. Aren't there more Persian words spoken than written. It seems so to me, but being an engineer, I need proof. I need numbers and graphs.

The third question I have is my own vocabulary. How many words do I use? How many words can I use? Is my vocabulary as vast as I like to think it is?

The second question is rather difficult, and I don't have a solution for it. The first and the third are easier to approach. Of course, there are still difficulties. What is a word? Are plan and plans two words or one? What is English? What is Persian? The boundaries of languages is not very easy to define either. Still, since I want to make comparisons the exact definitions and the exact numbers are not important. I can consider plan and plans two separate words, or the same word, using the same approach for different inputs and the results remain fairly comparable.

I'm going to plan a few experiments which I might write about later, but I am going to start a related project for now which I can later use as an input to my other experiments. My current project is writing a one month novel. The same idea behind NaNoWriMo. If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is an annual competition to write a 50000 word novel in one month. It takes place every November, and since I'm not going to wait until next November, I'm doing it now on my own. I started on February 12, and I'm going to finish it by March 14. NaNoWriMo winners are all those who have finished their work. There is no emphasis on quality, just quantity, so that's what I'm going to do, too. I've written 8750 words by now. It's not a great story, but if I can finish it, at least I have a rough draft of my very first novel.

If you're wondering how the hell someone is supposed to write 50000 words in one month, you might want to read Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem! I'm sure you'll enjoy it even if you don't want to write a novel ever.

If you're curious about my story, it's called Lucky (working title) and it's about a boy who finds out he is luckier than the average person. I intend it to be a fantasy novel (since I am a HUGE fan of fantasy) but it can go anywhere from where it is. Here's a few paragraphs from the first chapter titled The Monster.

My friends used to think that I cheat. Even I sometimes thought that I cheat. What else could it be? Luck? That was one theory, but not a very likely one. Lucky people, apart from me, are only stuff of legends. You hear people saying, my cousin Farsheed, is such a lucky man. Anything he touches becomes gold. He buys a house, and tomorrow real estate prices skyrocket. He sells his house, next thing you know we are in economic depression. But these are legends. If you get to know the said cousin, you will find him a man with great economic sense. He buys and sells not randomly, but calculatingly. Not me. For me, it happened like this. A friend would invite us to play Mensch. We would start by rolling the die, and I was usually the one who got the six first. As the game continued, my friends used to find that I'm likely to get a four, if one their pieces is four fields ahead of mine, and a five if its five fields ahead. Mensch is supposed to be a game of pure chance. No thinking is required. Nothing serious. Just play and enjoy. But when I am involved, everything changes.

That was why I got less and less invitations to play with my friends. They didn't like to play a cheater. At first I tried to explain, that I can't explain why it is happening. “Freak accidents happen,” I used to say. I didn't add that they tend to happen around me a lot more often, and they're usually to my advantage.

They didn't buy it. “You're cheating.” They used to say, “You're not supposed to get a six right at the beginning of the game.” Not that they knew anything about probabilities. They were believers of the Murphy's Law, though they didn't like it when they were always the ones to be the victim of the Law.

But games of chance were not the only reason I got separated from my friends and classmates. At school, teachers only tended to pick me when I was prepared for the topic. It rarely happened that I was not ready and teacher would ask me a question. On the rare occasions that it did happen, I saw triumphant looks in my classmates' eyes.

So, school wasn't at all fun for me. When I started college, it was with a relief to start a new life, with new people that didn't know anything about my freakishness. Probability classes were the worse things in this new life. It was like the lecturer was deliberately taunting me. Dice and coins were always a touchy subject with me. Colored balls were soon added to the list. “There are eight red balls, five green balls, and twelve white balls in a bowl. Blindfolded, you take three balls from the bowl, one at a time and without replacing them. How probable is it that the third one is green?”

When I would see such questions, I was tempted to answer, “It depends on who is taking the balls.”

It was after one particularly nasty Probability class that I decided to quantify me freakishness. I guess that proves that I am a real freak. I took a coin and started to count how many tails I get and how many heads. I flipped the coin two hundred times. 109 heads, 98 tails. Damn it. So how is it supposed to happen? Then I notices two people coming. I couldn't hide what I was doing fast enough. Mohsen was coming towards me, with a huge smile on his face. I had tried to ignore him as much as I could, because he was a betting person. The ideal candidate to blow my new cover as a normal fifty-fifty person. But this time I decided the hell with it. Who cares what these idiots think about me. “I do,” said a small voice in my head, but I ignored it. Apparently he'd been watching me for some time and decided that I really was crazy. Not that it mattered to him. After all, he was crazy too. Beside him, was his annoyingly ever present girlfriend, Sima. I couldn't read the emotion on her face. Was it consent, curiosity, or something else? I couldn't tell.

So who won? You or you?” said Mohsen, “Doing some lab after class? Deciding if your coin is fair or not?”

I know. It's not very good, but remember I'm after quantity for now, not quality. If it goes well, I'm gonna find out how many English words I can use in a fairly large written work. And I'm announcing what I'm doing here, so I can't back away later. Or at least I hope I won't. Wish me luck.

Friday, February 05, 2010


I never paid much attention to the government's "westernization" (or rather, anti-westernization) propaganda and I don't make my choices based on what is Iranian and what is not. But my current situation is beyond that. English has become an indispensable part of my process of thinking. I write my notes half in English, half in Persian. I think intermittently in English and in Persian. I even frequently dream in English! Now that is a bit too much, but not quite unexpected. I'm suspecting that I'm actually using English more than my native Persian despite the fact that I'm living in a Persian-speaking country.

I took a moment to think about my daily routine. when I'm at home, I'm usually either reading (almost always in English), or listening to audio books or music (both in English) or watching movies (again in English) or study (not very much, and in English naturally). When I'm out, and I don't go out unless it is necessary, I use Persian for communicating with others, which I keep
to a minimum. I rarely talk and I almost never listen (preferring to listen to audio books or occasionally music).

I never thought such thing could be possible. I used to think that even when people live in societies with languages other than their native tongues, their going to continue to use their first language for thinking. Now I see, it is even possible to stay in the society you've been born into, and change your thinking language. Interesting.

I think I am now officially westernized!