How Many Words in English?
In order to estimate the number of words in a language, one must first determine what a word is.
For example, is bug a word? Or is it several words? There’s bug “insect,” bug as in, “I drive a Bug,” bug as in “Don’t bug me,” bug as in “eyes that bug out,” and bug as in “Ain’t you the big bug?” Then, there are inflected forms: bugs, bugged, bugging, buggy (crawling with bugs), and debug.
One way to determine the number of words in English is to count the number of entries in a dictionary.
The Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. Add to these about 9,500 derivative words that are included as subentries. According the OED blog, these numbers add up to about a quarter of a million distinct English words.
Another way to count words is with an algorithm. The Global Language Monitor (GLM) keeps a running total with something called a Predictive Quantities Indicator (PQI). The PQI runs analytics as a weighted index, measuring the frequency of words and phrases in print and electronic media, on the Internet, and in proprietary databases like Lexis-Nexis. When a word or phrase meets a minimum of 25,000 citations and certain geographical criteria, it is added to the total. On June 10, 2009, the total reached the million mark with Web 2.0. Since then, about 14,000 words have been added. According to the GLM, a new word is created every 98 minutes, or about 14.7 per day. Some of these words, however, are of questionable use to most speakers, for example, jai ho!, N00b, carbon neutral, greenwashing, chengguan, recessionists, and zombie banks.
Whether one estimates the number of words at 250,000 or a million, English leads all other languages in vocabulary size. For example, the number of words in French is estimated to be 100,000; German, 184,000; Chinese, about 86,000. Individual speakers, of course, get along just fine in the 10,000-50,000-word range.
In 1930, linguist Charles Ogden proposed a form of English that uses only 850 words and a few rules. George Orwell used it as a model for Newspeak. Ogden’s word list is still used for ESL instruction.
Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that as few as 1,000 words are enough to navigate daily life–if they’re the right words. Utility, not quantity, is what matters in vocabulary. My observations of the language used on Facebook for example, suggest that most people get along with very few words indeed, especially modifiers.
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