I am reading Laurence Olivier’s autobiography, ‘Confessions of an Actor’ and fascinating stuff it is. Originally published in 1982 I can’t understand why I never read it sooner. It’s been on the shelf a goodly while. I have always maintained, and I might have mention this before, that two people sitting side by side watching a play together do not actually see the very same play. Well I didn’t see the Zeffirelli production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Old Vic on the same night as Lord Olivier (at least I don’t think so) but what a different reaction we each had. Regarding Romeo this is what he writes – ‘…for the ideal of boyish passionate intensity I find it hard to believe that John Stride in Zeffirelli’s splendid production can ever have been bettered.’ Wow! There’s praise indeed. So what was my reaction to Mister Stride’s performance? I remember thinking at the time – ‘how can jumping up and down like a puppet on a string betoken passion?’ Obviously Lord Olivier and I must have seen it on different nights. I really did think he was dreadful. On the other hand, and Olivier doesn’t mention this, I saw to my mind the definitive Juliet, a once in a lifetime performance by the young Judy Dench, never to be equalled. Juliet is such a difficult part, a mature actress playing a thirteen year old, even if at thirteen a girl at that period was of marriageable age.
Olivier’s writing, though easy enough to read. is not a great advertisement for the acting profession and reading it one can see why snide journalists refer to actors as luvvies. So many best beloved wonderful fabulous friends, so much adoration, so many Johns who become Johnnies; Johnnie Gielgud, Johnnie Dexter etcetera. Even Noel Coward at one point is referred to as Noelie, Frederic March becomes Freddie and Ronald Pickup becomes Ronnie. Kenneth Tynan becomes Kenny and the girls don’t escape, little wifey becomes Joanie and Geraldine McEwen becomes Gerry, and there are many more. It’s as though he is desperate to assure us how intimate he was with all these people.
It’s interesting to read how he was torn apart by critics and what he has to say about them especially as he was reputed to be the greatest actor of his age. I met him only once, at an audition, and found him charming and so polite, unlike one or two lesser men who were rudeness personified. It’s a shame that in his latter years he suffered so much from various horrid illnesses.
England's Italian football manager Fabio Capello claims he can manage his players with just 100 words of English. So how far could you get with a vocabulary of that size? Despite his sometimes colourful language, communicating with Wayne Rooney does not require a Shakespearean command of English.
His comment raises an interesting question - how far could such a limited knowledge of English take you?
Not very far, says Peter Howarth, deputy director of Leeds University's language centre.
"It's a ridiculously small number, you could learn 100 words in a couple of days, particularly when you're in the country surrounded by the language," he says.
"People do say that from a learner's point of view, English is relatively easy to use without too much grammar... but Fabio Capello needs a range, presumably, and to communicate emotions and a bit of nuance."
A grasp of 1,500 words is needed to communicate at an intermediate level with "some range", he suggests.
Estimates for the average size of a person's vocabulary vary, but TV lexicographer and dictionary expert Susie Dent says it's about 20,000 active words and 40,000 passive ones.
She says it's important to distinguish between the active words we know and use and those we might know but don't use. Part of the problem when learning a language is understanding the context in which words should be used, she adds. It's about learning how and when to use the vocabulary, which is why learner dictionaries are very useful."
I wonder how many words I know in Greek. More than a hundred but less than 1500 I am sure.