Ian McNamara

More than words

Full marks for initiative but unfortunately zero for range of vocabulary


Whilst I was correcting a few homework assignments last week I came across one from a Japanese learner where it appeared that he had saved himself the effort of using a dictionary and just created his own lexis when he couldn't recall the obvious English word to use.

Full marks for initiative but unfortunately zero for range of vocabulary. Call me a stickler, but I tend to insist that, barring the odd noun, all words on the page should be found scattered somewhere amongst those listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. Which raises the question, how many words did this student have to choose from? Is the choice too limited and is there room for some additions?

So, exactly how many words are there? There are many things in the Universe that can never be precisely measured but that doesn't stop mankind from trying. People with time on their hands have determined that there are around 7,300 human languages and dialects; about 100,000,000 stars in the Milky Way and 10 to the power of 72 atomic particles in the universe (that is precisely 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and 24,000 words in the works of William Shakespeare.

All of which leads us absolutely nowhere when it comes to figuring out the actual number of words in the English language other than to say 1,489 can effectively be ruled out. Writers of English have a barrel load of words to choose from. When you think of it, the English language writer always has at least three words for any idea, each harking back to Latin, Germanic/Saxon or Greek roots. And that's just the start. The English-speaking world also owes a heavy debt to Algonquin, Hebrew, Malay, Hmong and Welsh - without whom . . . well let's just say that Welsh is to the world of languages what the leek is to world cuisine. And then there is the entire realm of jargon a language known only to geeks in specific fields. Add to this the number of new slang words being created by L.A. rappers at this very moment and you know that coming up with an exact figure isn't easy.

This all being said, I can now unequivocally state that as of 23.18 on Dec 14th 2001 there were approximately 615,506 words in the English Language. This number is arrived at by adding the number of words in the OED to the six new ones my student churned out last week. Choose well among them, my friends. As a comparison French has fewer than 100,000, including numerous 'Franglais' items as le snacque-barre, le hit-parade, le traffic jam and le ham and egg McMuffin - all of which sound so much sexier when uttered with a French accent. So much so, that the movement to make French the official accent of the English language is rapidly gaining popularity.

I'm trusting that everyone reading this is up to speed on all the words currently in use in the English language (and if your not then why not? Call yourself an English teacher? ). So here's a little quiz for those of you still sober during this office Christmas party week.

1) Give me two words which contain all five vowels in alphabetical order.

2) Write a sentence containing seven spellings of the "ee" sound.

3) I could have made the above more difficult by expecting you to remember the single word with a triple 'e' in it. This six letter word is, of course, . . .

4) "Ough" can be pronounced in eight different ways. Write a sentence that contains them all.

5) Right now you're probably crying into you pint and thinking "Hang on, what's the word to describe the shape of the bubbles in beer foam?" So, what is it?

6) Think of a word which includes the consonant cluster 'dsf'. Clue : If you're in a bar with a girl and a Heineken then this is what you've got.

7) A topical Harry Potter moment: 'The five boxing wizards jump quickly.' What do you notice about this sentence?

8) If the last thing to happen is the 'ultimate'. What's the second to last thing to happen called?

9) I'm sure many of you have said to your students " OK you gormless bunch, let's have this classroom spick and span by lunchtime." So, you now the original meanings of the words 'gorm', 'spick' and 'span', don't you?

10) Finally, just to emphasise my point about the Welsh language. A) What's the plural of Eisteddfod? B) Who cares enough to spend time finding out?


Email of the week:

What's more surprising - the content of this email or the fact it wasn't from a close relative?

"Thanks for your service to both students and teachers of an emerging global language - you are a catalyst for making the world a better place."

I've got a feeling the 2002 Nobel has my name on it.



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