How many words are there in English?
Well, according to The Economist magazine’s recent predictions issue, The World in 2009, a Texas language organization claims that English will reach one million words in April of 2009. How can they be so sure?
For one thing, they can’t be!
Lexicographers don’t agree on what constitutes a word, let alone how many exist in a given language or how to count them. Do plurals and conjugations of individual words count as different words? How do you handle obsolete words, or neologisms, or slang?
According to the Global Language Monitor, the group behind the millionth word prediction and the founders of YourDictionary.com, a new word is added to the English language every 98 minutes. The group is a bit looser in accepting new words than most dictionaries, as they more readily accept online citation. Most unabridged English dictionaries include around 600,000 entries, compared to the over 900,000 words tracked thus far by the Monitor.
Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst at The Global Language Monitor, has a fairly simple method. Any intelligible utterance understood by an English speaker counts as a word, but plurals aren’t counted again. In his own words:
We went back to the Middle English and saw that the definition of a word was ‘a thought spoken,’ which means if I say a word, and you understand me, it’s a real word.
By Payack’s method, the English language word-count is in the high 900,000’s as the new year approaches. Considering the loose standards for word count, Beyond Words Language Blog has decided to spur the countdown to one million with a democratic twist.
Why should word-lovers sit back while the one millionth word is registered willy-nilly by the Language Monitor? Rather than lollygagging, let’s take action.
You can have a say in deciding the unofficial Millionth English Word by contributing your suggestions here.
Just suggest a word and it’s meaning in our comments box, and we’ll publish it. Once we’ve compiled a strong list of candidates, the voting will start, and come April of 2009, we will make language history!
Millionth English Word Candidates:
The above photo contains 1 million words, and can be inspected more closely here.