One-millionth Word?

William Shakespeare

As an author, I am interested in the English language. Although most predictions about cultural events in the future are difficult to make, I found one that nevertheless seems reasonable: At the current pace of a new English-language word created about every 98 minutes, English will cross the Million Word Mark on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 am (Stratford-on Avon Time).

But what, exactly, is a “word“? It used to be that the expert source on what was or wasn’t a word was the dictionary, such as American Heritage, Webster’s Third, and the Oxford English.  Groups of editors at a dictionary watch specific subject areas, logging the hits a new word gets. A “hit” is a mention in a book, newspaper, or Web site. Dictionaries reject words for being too technical (even the most die-hard Grey’s Anatomy fan will never need to know what a “mammosomatotroph” is) or for being too young (staycation). Nor do they count brand names (Coke, Facebook, Wikipedia) or most foreign words and phrases. Then they put the hits in a database and compare the new terms to words they already have. So although “Facebook,” being a brand name, doesn’t qualify, every word in Shakespeare’s plays does – including “cap-a-pie” (meaning from head to foot) and “fardel” (meaning burden). Being the granddaddy of creative linguistics, Shakespeare invented more than 1,700 words. All of them appear in an unabridged dictionary.

A dictionary.

The Global Language Monitor, based in Austin, Tex., has been tracking words for the past five years. According to Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst at the Monitor, “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.” So Payack counts “staycation,” “Facebook,” and “Wikipedia” as words. But he also follows some of the old rules. For example, words that are both noun and verb, such as “water,” are counted only once. He doesn’t count all the names there are for chemicals, because there are hundreds of thousands.

Once the Monitor identifies a word, it tracks it over time, watching to see where the word appears. Based on that measurement, they decide whether or not the word has “momentum,” that is, whether it’s becoming more popular or if it’s a proverbial flash in the pan. “It’s the same as the old [method], just recognizing the new reality,” Payack says. The Monitor’s method gives a lot more weight to online citations. And it recognizes that English is today truly an international language. English has nearly 400 million native speakers, putting it second in the world, but it has 1.3 billion speakers overall, making it the world’s most widely understood language, explains Payack . It’s spoken by over 300 million people in India as a second language, and by at least that many second-speakers in China.

Brokeback Mountain

For example, after director Ang Lee called his movie about two cowboys who fall in love Brokeback Mountain, the word “brokeback” wormed its way into the English vernacular as a synonym for the adjective “gay.” Although “brokeback” may be past its glory days in the United States, the word, with this new meaning, is still popular in China, Payack said. It appears on blogs and Web sites, which means it has momentum, which means it’s a word.

Average Americans use about 7,500 words a day and have a vocabulary of about 20,000 total. Even Shakespeare only knew about 60,000. So the number of words in the English language will always be many, many more than any one person knows or uses. Both Salikoko Mufwene, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, and Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, said English could very well have a million words already. Counting words, after all, is an imprecise science. But it’s also not the dictionary’s science. The job of dictionaries has always been, Mufwene said, “to reflect how people speak, not to teach them how to speak.” “You need people to edit the dictionary and take responsibility for it, so that it’s reliable,” Pickett said. “And I don’t think that’s going to change.”

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