Sunday, April 02, 2006

But Who's Counting?

Nice piece by Peter Rowe in today's San Diego Union-Tribune about whether the English language is about add its one millionth word. (The answer, in a word, is "No.")


Anonymous daz said...

Not that it's so important, but it's an interesting question: How big is the English vocabulary?

I greatly doubt experts who say the number of words in English is "unknowable".

Before announcing a count (necessarily approximate), it must be specified which words are being counted. All the inflected forms of any word? Fine. Proper nouns? Fine, I guess (but I'm more interested in uncapitalized words).

At any rate, once the eligibility requirements are set, we can begin.

Say that all the entries in all the respectable unabridgeds (unabridgeds?) amount to 300,000 words.

Add the inflected forms that are listed but without their own entries and maybe that gives a total of 600,000.

Now toss in all the specialized words that appear only in the likes of medical, chemical, botanical, or zoological dictionaries and maybe that gives another
200,000 - 250,000 (all my estimates are uneducated guesses), bring the total to maybe as much as 850,000.

Finally, add all the dialect, slang, and nonce words, plus obsolescent words, that haven't been tossed in the pot yet. And just maybe that figure of almost a million isn't that far off.

Problems: There's a problem with chemical words, since like German nouns they can be concatenated to create bigger and bigger molecules, many of which are unthunk of to date. And those nonce, dialect, and obsolescent words -- where do we draw the line? (E.g., do we include "wilding", quoted by one journalist after the Central Park "jogger" assault and copied by a gaggle more -- and then never heard from again?) There is no clear answer -- it's much like defining a "metropolitan area".

Still, I can believe that with reasonable choices in these areas, the English vocabulary could be approaching one million.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

Well, daz, I think you've zeroed in on the key question, which how DO we count such things? I know there's been interesting discussion about this over at Language Log.

I especially like the line from ol' J.A.H. Murray himself: "The circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference."

9:33 AM  

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