English approaches the one million-word mark

By Rupert Cornwell

WASHINGTON - It will not be of much comfort to President George Bush and others who, on occasion, struggle to make themselves understood.

But some time soon the English language, according to at least one reasonably authoritative source, will create its one-millionth word.

The Global Language Monitor (GLM), a San Diego-based linguistic consultancy, reckoned that on 21 March (the vernal equinox) this year, there were about 988,968 words in the language, "plus or minus a handful".

At the current rate of progress, the one-million mark will be reached this summer.

And how does the GLM know? It started, it says, with a base vocabulary drawn from major dictionaries that contain the historic core of the language.

Then it created its own algorithm, or formula, called the Predictive Quantities Indicator (PQI), that measures the language as found in print, electronic media, and on television and radio.

That establishes a rate of increase in the creation of new words, and the import and absorption of foreign words into English.

No one argues about the huge richness of the English language - fed by Germanic, Scandinavian and Latin streams, unrivalled in its readiness to borrow from every language, and mercifully free of tiresome bodies like the Academie Francaise to decide what counts and what does not.

The process is only reinforced by the universality of English.

True, more people (more than a billion) may be native speakers of Mandarin Chinese than of English (an estimated 500 million or so, roughly the same as Hindi).

French, incidentally, only limps into the top 10 with 130 million native speakers.

But if there is such a thing as a world language, it is English, spread first by the British Empire, then by the economic, cultural and military juggernaut of the US, and now by the internet.

And, at every stop on the way, new words are coined, or scooped up from other languages.

But how many and how fast? The GLM claims that its projected figures are conservative - and in fact some estimates put the total of English words at two million or more.

The devil lies in definition: what constitutes a new word? Does slang count? And what about archaisms and obsolete words? Another study, the Life and Times of the English Language, by Robert Claiborne and published in 1990, puts the number of words at no more than 600,000.

The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 300,000 head words, and some 615,000 "word forms," that include the head words, plus combinations and derivatives.

By contrast, Websters Third International Dictionary has 54,000 word families - base words, inflections and derivations.

But no one should feel intimidated.

The average vocabulary of an educated native English speaker is about 24,000 to 30,000.

Shakespeare used 24,000 words - 1,700 of which he is claimed to have invented.

Nonetheless, with an active vocabulary of just 3,000 or so, you can get along pretty well.

And if you are stumped for a word, just make one up.

It seems to have worked in the past for the most powerful man in the world, so it could work for you as well.

The chances are, it will soon be swept up in the boundless net of the Global Language Monitor.

You never know, it might even be the coveted number 1,000,000.


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