I think that the world’s one and a half billion speakers of English have been aware for some time that the language is not only unprecedentedly widespread, but easily outstrips other tongues in terms of vocabulary. Not satisfied with its twin sources of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman French, English has, over the centuries, ruthlessly mugged languages ranging from Sanskrit, Latin and ancient Greek to Hindi, Malay, modern French, Italian and Navajo.
One would have thought that the number of words in Global English was countless. Now, however, they have been counted. A Texan organisationgoing by the name of the Global Language Monitor has announced that English will acquire (invent, mug, discover?) its one-millionth word on 10 June 2009. Wow! (Is ‘wow’ a word?).
One million used to be an impressive tally in the mid-20th century, whether we were referring to dollars, galaxies or rabbits in Australia, but, used as we are to fiscal deficits of tens of billions or bail-outs of trillions, the announcement of a million-size vocabulary might now be less than a sensation. That apart, however, who is the authority here? Unlike the French, Britain and the USA have no austere academies to define linguistic or cultural norms and limits. How should we feel about this outfit in Austin, Texas? George Bush territory? Resisting the temptation to be facetious, might we yet ask, who did the counting and what criteria were used? If people disagree about the total, can we have a re-count?
Critics fall into three camps. The first says that the number is too high. Most college dictionaries list 200,000 to 300,000 words. Even the indomitable Oxford English Dictionary can only scrape together 600,000. Literary pundits in times past have counted 20,000 to 30,000 words in Shakespeare’s works and between 50,000 and 60,000 in Churchill’s tomes. Apparently no other author comes close. Most 20th century estimates of the entire language’s vocabulary clung to a figure around the 500,000 mark.
Be that as it may, the second camp of critics – the ones who say one million is too low – seems to come in with more compelling arguments. If we look at verbs and agree that ‘am’, ‘is’ and ‘are’ are different words, then so are ‘give’, ‘gives’, ‘gave’, ‘given’ and ‘giving’. This would bump up an estimated number of 50,000 verbs to 250,000, which makes quite a difference to our ultimate total. We seem to have no problems with adjectives (white, black, good, bad) and nouns sheep and deer are OK, but if we insist that cat/cats are two, that would give us another 50,000 nouns to chalk up. This problem is a minor one in English, for if we try to count the number of words in a (rich) language like Finnish, we find that nouns decline 15 ways, all with separate meanings, so that talo (house) appears as talo, talon, taloa, talolla, talolle, talolta, talossa, taloon, talosta, talotta, taloksi, taloin, taloineen and talona. This is bad enough, but these words have plural forms (talot, taloissa, etc.) which means that each noun has 28 distinct forms.
In Finnish, therefore, nouns could not be tallied at 50,000 words, but at 50,000 x 28 = 1,400,000, which would make it (when you add in a complex verb conjugation system) arguably the world’s most prolific tongue!
But let’s get back to English, for the ‘too few’ camp has more powerful arguments which might encourage them to challenge Finnish. The Oxford Dictionary lists 47,000 words which it describes as ‘obsolete’ but which nevertheless belong to English linguistic history (who decides when a word becomes obsolete?). English, as the major language of science, abounds in hundreds of thousands (at least) of scientific words. There are apparently one million named insect species! Then, there is the hyphen dilemma. If thirty-one, thirty-two and thirty-three are separate words, then so are two-hundred-and-fifty-three, etc. So by counting in this manner one can add in another million.
We are clearly coming up against the question: what is a word? (third camp of critics). Robert Beard (PhD Linguistics) tells us for a start that there is no such thing as a word. They may appear as such written down, but when spoken they do not have separate existences (with beginnings and endings) but simply stream out as lexemes and morphemes. Lexemes are noun, verb, adjective and adverb stems (box, speak, friend) while morphemes are everything else including suffixes, prefixes, etc. In this combination, ‘run’ can become ‘runner’. Few among us would define ‘-er’ as a word, but there is nevertheless an added meaning. I often wonder, when someone says “Whaddyaknow?!” if this is a question, an interpolation or interjection or simply an utterance of surprise, but in any case, how many words is it? The third camp also debate whether we should count words like ‘welkin’ (fairly familiar as Shakespearean for ‘sky’), Lancashire dialect words such as ‘chowf’, ‘powfagged’ and ‘baggin’ (pulling a face, exhausted, and food to take down the mine) and domesticated foreign imports such as ‘spaghetti’ and ‘hors d’oeuvre’.
Finally, do we actually need a million words? A University of Chicago professor said recently that the average American uses about 7,500 words a day. I would dispute this. Studies of British workers’ speech suggest this figure should be closer to 750. Ogden’s “Basic English” asserted that anything could be said using his list of 850 words and this seems fairly feasible if we count ‘turn’ as one word but exploit its phrasal verb facilities (turn up, turn down, turn on, turn off, turn in, etc.).
Yorkshire’s Bob Appleyard, popping in to see what his butcher has today, needs no verbs at all!
I asked a Finnish friend of mine if he could summon up 10,000 words, as an Italian businessman does in a 20-minute presentation. “Yes,” he replied, “in a lifetime.” He told me confidentially that he only needs two phrases to travel round the world, though he has learnt them in English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. “What are they?” I asked. “I love you” and “my friend will pay.”