The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t count on it!

Q: Is the English language growing or shrinking? And is the rate of evolution faster or slower than in the past? I’m a scientist, not a linguist, but I’m familiar with statistics and I’ll take a swing at reading anything.

A: It’s difficult to answer your questions precisely because nobody knows quite how to count all the words in English. They’re literally countless. Here’s how I explain the problem in my latest book, Origins of the Specious, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman:

“Is ‘sleep’ one word or two (a noun as well as a verb)? Is “sleeps” yet another one (or two)? Does “sleepy” count as a separate word? And should we count the gazillion (give or take) scientific and medical and technological terms (‘2,4,5-Trimethylbenzaldehyde,’ for example) that only specialized dictionaries include, not to mention all the acronyms and abbreviations and texting wrds and so on? The lexicographers at Oxford University Press, publisher of the OED, think we probably have a quarter to three-quarters of a million English words, minus all those 2,4,5-Trimethyl-whatevers—way more than French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, and so on.”

But back to your questions.

Is English growing? The linguist Mark Liberman wrote an interesting item about this on the Language Log website back in 2003. Liberman said it was “almost impossible” to count “in any useful way” the number of new words that enter English each year.

“Nevertheless,” he added, “it’s easy to come up with some specific numbers that are not completely devoid of interest.”

One number is his estimate that the Oxford English Dictionary was adding about 2,500 to 3,000 new items a year. He said lexicographers were undoubtedly aware of other new words that didn’t make it into dictionaries, but he doubted that the total number of new coinages or borrowings was more than 5,000 a year.

Is this rate of change faster or slower than in the past? Well, if 2,500 words were added to English each year since the early Anglo-Saxon era 1,500 years ago, we’d now have about 3.75 million words. However, the online OED – the granddaddy of English dictionaries – had “only” 616,500 main entries and derivative word forms as of 2005.

So, yes, we do now seem to be gaining words at a faster clip, though I suspect that the rate of increase has gone up and down over the years. I had a blog item earlier this year about the myth that English was about to reach – or had reached – a million words.

Another complication here is that we’re losing as well as gaining words. But when is a rare word considered lost? Many terms listed in dictionaries as obscure or archaic are still occasionally used. Should we count them or not? H-m-m.

Over all, though, we seem to be gaining more words than we’re losing, the linguist Morris Swadesh suggests in The Origin and Diversification of Language (1971), edited by Joel F. Sherzer.

“Since human cultures have tended to acquire more and more artifacts and concepts, one of the main directions of change in lexicon has been expansion,” Swadesh writes. “In English, for example, dictionaries of the epoch of Beowulf list some thousands of meaningful items, or lexemes, as against hundreds of thousands today.”

By comparison, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), by Samuel Johnson, had nearly 43,000 words, and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) had 70,000 words.

I’m sorry that I can’t be more precise, but this is a case where the math really is fuzzy.

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