Monday, April 10, 2006

How many words in the English language?

Almost a million? 500,00? I agree with this Slate Magazine article - there is probably no way to tell, even if the Global Language Monitor proclaims that—as of now —there are exactly 988,968 words in English... and counting. Oviously, if it is even hard to agree on the basics so how can they even find such a phony number.
First, it is not even clear what a word really is.
As Jesse Sheidlower (in Slate) pointed out:
If run is a verb, is the noun run another word? What about the inflected forms ran, runs, and running? What about words with run as a base, such as runner and runnable and runoff and runway? Are compounds, such as man-bites-dog, man-child, man-eater, manhandle, man-hour, man of God, man's man, and men in black, to be counted once or many times?
An other good question is indeed : what is English?
As you can see on the following graph, a lot of English words have foreign origins:
  • 28.24% from Latin (including modern scientific and technical Latin)
  • 28.3% from French, including Old French and early Anglo-French.
  • 25% from Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch
  • 5.32% from Greek
  • 4.03% with no etymology given
  • 3.28% derived from proper names
  • 1 % from other languages.
Besides, how many words do people actually use? Probably from a few thousands to tens of thousands. (probably less for President Bush though!)

Yet, some people estimate that the English language is the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words, when German is said to have a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000 (including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade).

Well, that may be, but that is probably because English is very ready to accommodate foreign words, (and as an international language, it has absorbed vocabulary from an even greater number of other sources).
[This according to AskOxford wouldnot take into account 'agglutinative' languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of 'words'.]

I think the best way to sum it up is to reflect on this very telling quote!
"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary."
NOTE: Obviously in France le snacque-barre (Gotta be from Quebec!) is actually spelled 'Snack Bar' but the other version looks more fun, doesn't it?

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