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Published: Friday, 11/23/2007

English language is closing in on 1 million words

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Humans like to count.

We tally how many people live in the country (303 million), how many pounds of candy the average American eats each year (26), and how many dogs are named "Bear" (503 last year in Lucas County).

So it's only natural that someone would try and figure out how many words there are in the English language. It's a tricky task, but by the count of one language-tracking Web site, English could be just a few months away from becoming the planet's first language to have 1 million words.

The Global Language Monitor, based in San Diego, contends that English could reach the milestone early next year. A recent estimate by the site suggested the language - a worldwide presence unrivaled in its willingness to borrow from other cultures - had less than 5,000 new words to go, based on an algorithm that analyzes word uses by searching Google and databases like Factiva.

Spanish, the next closest language, has only about 350,000 by the site's estimation, followed closely by Chinese. French, by comparison, has fewer than 100,000 words in its lexicon.

The real war of words, though, is what counts as a word in the first place. It's a question that becomes increasingly difficult to answer in the digital age, where anyone with a keyboard can post any gibberish or slang that they want on the Internet.

Global Language Monitor president and chief word analyst Paul J.J. Payack isn't perturbed by critics who believe trying to count words is a pointless and inherently flawed exercise.

"We count stars. We count atomic particles in the universe," he said. "Why can't we try to count words?"

But how? Dictionaries typically take years to follow a potential new word and gauge how much it is being used.

Mr. Payack said his algorithm is more responsive, tracking the frequency of words and phrases in the global print and electronic media, including blogs. It weighs long-term trends, short-term changes, and citations in the major media, he said.

Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary in Manhattan, calls the whole thing "nonsense."

"How big is the English lexis is not an inherently uninteresting question," he said. "...But pretending that it can be answered definitively with a single number is crazy."

In a Slate article published last year, he asked: Does a word that can be used as a verb and a noun count twice? Is every foreign food that appears on a menu in New York a word? Is every chemical compound a word? If "great-grandfather" is a word, what about "great-great-great-great-grandfather" and so on?

One blogger has started a campaign to introduce "bagonise" into the English language, defining it as "that unique feeling you have whilst waiting for your baggage to arrive on the airport carousel after everyone has collected theirs and left." It's clever, but is it a word? The same goes for "Bushisms" invented by the President, such as "misunderestimate" (meaning to seriously underestimate), that have sneaked into conversations and articles.

With its editorial standards, the OED has about 600,000 words in its exhaustive attempt at cataloging every English word. The unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary has 476,000.

Without a doubt, advances in technology have accelerated the process of adding to the English vocabulary.

"In this electronic era, [the language] is probably more dynamic than ever," said Tom Pitoniak, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster Inc. in Springfield, Mass. "With words subject to mass distribution, something can gain currency very quickly."

Mr. Payack, a Harvard graduate who is the former CEO of YourDictionary.com, said the issue is about more than how many words there are in English. The growth of the language illustrates how it has become the language of the world, often the secondary language among people for whom it's not the first.

All these global speakers adding words or creating hybrids are partially behind the unique size of English and seem to be spurring it on even more.

"It's the biggest outpouring in the growth of English since the time of Shakespeare," Mr. Payack said. "The world is embracing the culture and the fact that it's a global language."

Dorothy Siegel, director of the linguistics program at the University of Toledo, has some issues with how Mr. Payack maintains his list. But, she says, it is not surprising that English would have more words that other languages.

"English speakers are very welcoming of new words, and we don't have a culture where we have too many 'word police,'•" she said. "We've borrowed freely over the course of our history from a wide variety of languages."

The French, on the other hand, have a group called the Academie Francaise that has doggedly opposed allowing English words to seep into French, even for new inventions. (Officially, for example, the French say "courriel" instead of e-mail.)

"English speakers are much more laissez faire about that - to use a borrowed phrase," Ms. Siegel said.

The English vocabulary continues to grow at an increasing rate because it is the lingua franca of the Internet, and due to advances in science and technology. Other additions have come from text messaging and hip-hop.

Still, Ms. Siegel doesn't see any hubbub in possibly having 1 million words.

"I don't really know what's to be gained from counting," she said. "Is it like you're the millionth person through the turnstiles at Wal-Mart?"

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6103.



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