Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What do we mean by 'words'?

There was an item a few weeks ago about how many separate words there are in English. David Crystal has various suggestions in his Cambridge encyclopedias - and elsewhere - and you can easily find other figures bandied about by other linguists.

But it's not as easy as it might seem to calculate a precise figure. What do we mean by 'words'? Do we include every morphological variant of a root word, with every possible permutation of affixes? Do we just mean 'headword', as lexicographers term them? Some scientific and other specialist glossaries contain thousands, maybe even millions of entries that never make their way into 'English' dictionaries. So beware of easily swallowing stories like: 'English nears its millionth word'; the picture is more complex and multi-faceted than it appears. Here are two links for more nuanced discussion of this fascinating topic:

http://www.slate.com/id/2139611/
Merriam-Webster site on this (a very useful site for exploring in general, btw)
http://www.m-w.com/help/faq/total_words.htm

Simon

3 comments:

Fabian said...

I was reading the Metro not too long ago and I came across an article that caused all of our celebrations for the acquisition of the English language's 'millionth word'. Researchers claim that technology is literally destroying the language; apparently there are people that can get up in the morning, go to work etc and live a normal day without uttering a single word, and others that survive soley on minimal responses and back channelling. Thank God for chip and pin... So, what use is 'the millionth word' in english language if we never use any of them?

Dan said...

And by reading Metro you were probably avoiding eye contact & communication with fellow passengers thus destroying our noble language!

It is bizarre though, isn't it? We apparently love new words (look at all the articles about them) but hardly use them as we're so caught up in our own little worlds of I-Pods, txt msgs and MSN.

Ash said...

I disagree with those researchers mentioned by 'fabian'. technology merely brings rise to new terminology, lexical coinage (if that's a word...)and additions to the language. Form that standpoint it's fair to counter their claim, and say it is in fact creating the language of today, rather than destroying it. Words are dropping out of use simply because nobody uses them anymore, or their social connotation has changed (e.g. a 'twat' is a name for a pregnant fish, but we all think of a different meaning when this word is used!)

However, I agree with her about the 'millionth word' and it's value (or lack of). To put it bluntly, no-one (or very few people) actually cares how many words there are in the language. After all, words are merely carriers of meanings and connotations. Nothing more.