How Many Words Are There?

On June 10, 2009, at 10:22am Greenwich time, the English language will hit 1 million words. Or so says the Global Language Monitor, a media analytics company. But there are plenty of people who disagree. From the KUHF NewsLab, a little musing on modernity and the nature of words. Melissa Galvez reports.

"How many words are in the English language?  Probably a million I would think. Millions."

Like most people, James Croft probably doesn't think much about that question.  But he was happy to guess.  So were a group of lawyers and law students also eating lunch at Frenchies.

"150,000…..300,000…..6 million, ….a million…I would say 200 million…550…thousand…I was assuming…No, that's your vocabulary…"

So how many words ARE there in the English language?  And when do we add a new one to the list?  Paul JJ  Payack has an answer.  Payack is Chief Word Analyst at the Global Language Monitor, an Austin-based media analytics company. He predicts that English will add its 1 millionth word on June 10th, 2009.  Payack says this is important.

"Because English is the first truly global language with an immense number of words.  It's exciting because it's never happened in history. It's never been close in history, that people around the world can communicate in a single language." 

Payack says his team started with the dictionary, and then uses a computer program to track new words in the media, web, and biosphere.  When a word is seen at least 25,000 times across the world, it gets counted as a new word.

But some experts don't buy this story.

"The very idea that you could decide that the millionth word is going to be added at such and such a day, such and such a time, is laughable on its face.  There is no way you could assign a number to the size of the English lexicon."

That's Ben Zimmer, a linguist and consultant to the Oxford English dictionary: Zimmer points out that there is no easy definition of what makes an English word.  He also doubts that Payack's tracking method is real, stressing that the "million word" date has been changed several times.  Payack counters:

"Everybody knows it's an estimate. Do you know exactly how tall Mt. Everest is?  It's an estimate.  A statistical estimate"

And what do the lawyers at Frenchies think?  Still no consensus, but it did spark a lively conversation.

"I think Google would know…I could google it right now"
"…It's just stupid, you can't claim you have the millionth word, I mean, language is changing constantly…You can get a range, but you can never get an exact number…"
"I could come up with a word right now, galacput, or something, and I could say it means an orange tie, or an ugly orange tie"
"I think he's referring to my tie…but he said he liked it two weeks ago"
"So what do you call someone who says one thing two weeks ago and then another now?"
"A politician."

So we might ask ourselves: do we need a million words?  Paul Payack says his favorite word is "stuff".

For more information, please visit the Global Language Monitor (www.languagemonitor.com) and  Ben Zimmerman's Language Log Blog (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=972).

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Melissa Galvez.