June 12, 2009

999,998... 999,999... 1 Million?

How many words are there in the English language? According to the Global Language Monitor, a website that has developed a mathematical formula for determining the rate of creation of new English words recently featured in an article on CNN.com, the count has just reached 1,000,000 this Wednesday. But are the building blocks of sentence formation really enumerable?

The Oxford English Dictionary contains 600,000 words. Most agree that the English language contains many words that haven't yet made it into the dictionary, particularly those which can be classified as jargon or slang. But how many more words exist beyond the clearly defined and universally accepted 600,000?

To even begin to conceptualize the answer to this question, one would have to clearly define what constitutes a word. The website's only prerequisite is that the word is understood in 60% of the English-speaking world. However, there are many adulterations of the English language that are widely understood while not quite reaching word status. Say "funnest" or "stupidest" anywhere English is spoken and rest assured you'll be understood, regardless of the fact that neither of the aforementioned utterences are considered words. And what if a word has many meanings in different contexts? The word "sketchy" can be used to convey the uncertainty of details or the discomfort of a situation. Would it be counted as one word or two?

While it is certainly an interesting idea, attempting to count the number of words in the English language is like attempting to count to infinity. Language is not a quantatative entity. What is important is not how many words exist, but what you can do with them.

-Nicole Gulotta

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