How many English words are there?!............3
Which language has the most words?!.........3
What is a logoraphic language?!....................4
How big is the Oxford English Dictionary?!..4
What is a word?!..............................................4
Is English the best common language?!.......5
Vocabulary of English speakers?!.................6
1. Irregular verbs ..............................................6
Are irregular verbs ʻfossilsʼ?!.........................7
How many irregular verbs?!
How do you learn irregular verbs?!
Are there now fewer irregular verbs?!...........9
How many English words are there?
'June 9, 2009 is the day when the English language reaches one million
This claim by an American media company came from a
computer analysis of various dictionaries. It was immediately
described by the English linguist, David Crystal as the ‘biggest
load of rubbish I've heard in years.’
Professor Crystal is perhaps the leading expert on the
English language and wrote the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the
English Language (2003). ‘The English language passed a
million words years ago,’ he insists, suggesting that the mistake
comes from computers counting words rather than lexemes.
So how many words are there in English? How do we count
them? And how does the English lexicon compare with other
Which language has the most words?
There is no certain answer to this because we often define
‘language’ and ‘word’ in different ways. Chinese, for example, is
a single language in terms of its written form. In the spoken
form, however, it is a family of languages or dialects.
Spoken Mandarin is as distinct from Cantonese as Spanish
is from Portuguese.
What is a logoraphic language?
Different languages also use different writing systems. English
is alphabetic; Chinese is logographic.
✦ An alphabetic language has letters, which help guide
✦ A logographic language separates the written and spoken
forms. Chinese characters do not guide pronunciation.
Despite these differences, we can get a sense of differences in
language size is by comparing dictionaries.
How big is the Oxford English Dictionary?
The OED defines 615,100 words.
✦ A similar German dictionary offers around 180,000
✦ A Russian language dictionary has around 160,000
✦ A French edition has less than 150,000.
This suggests English probably has the biggest vocabulary of
all the European languages.
What is a word?
This is a surprisingly complex question. For example the OED
distinguishes 430 senses for the verb set. Is each form of set a
separate word? Linguists make the distinction between words
and lexemes. The lexeme ‘run’, for example, includes all its
forms: run, running, ran etc.
And what about numbers? If you count to a million, do you
have a million words?
Are all the words in OED in use?
✦ 41,700 OED words are obsolete. This means that you
are unlikely to use them.
✦ 240 are ghost words. A ghost word has never existed
Is English the best common language?
Many complain that English is ‘difficult’, pointing to its heavy
use of phrasal verbs and odd phonological quirks. For over a
century there have been attempts to promote an alternate
lingua franc (see here.) But the linguist Richard Lederer
describes English as the most 'democratic' language in history.
By this he means that the users of English help change
and improve it. This is possible because of "the relative
simplicity of its grammar and syntax.” English has other
advantages in that it:
✦ easily imports words from other languages, cultures and
✦ has no academy to decide which words are acceptable.
Vocabulary of English speakers?
There are different opinions on this question.
✦ Lederer has suggested that a typical English speaker has a
vocabulary of between 10,000 and 20,000 words.
✦ Steven Pinker talks of 60,000 ‘by high school’.
We also need to distinguish between our passive and active
language. Passive language consists of those words we recognise
but perhaps do not say or write. Our active vocabulary is those
word we use in speech and writing.
Most English verbs follow a simple
pattern. ‘I paint’ becomes ‘I
painted/I have painted’ and so on.
Irregular verbs do not follow this
or any other rule. ‘I see’ for example,
becomes ‘I saw/I have seen’.
This lack of pattern makes irregular verbs more difficult
to learn. According to the linguist, Noam Chomsky, we are
born with a ‘universal grammar’: an inherited capacity to learn
Small children, for example, learn to speak and
understand at an incredible speed. Imitation plays some part in
this but is not enough to explain a seemingly intuitive mastery
of complex grammatical rules.
This in-built logic makes children instinctively assume
that all verbs are regular. That’s why a child might say ‘buyed’
instead of ‘bought’ for example.
Language students also struggle with strange irregular
verb endings. Why does 'go' become ‘went’? Or ‘get’ turn into
‘got’? Irregulars can seem like traps set up to make life difficult!
To confuse things further, some verb endings are the
same in the past and present. The book you read today is the
same as the one you read yesterday.
So why does English have these illogical, infuriating
words? And why are they so important?
Are irregular verbs ‘fossils’?
English borrows words from many languages - particularly
Latin, French and Greek. Is this imported vocabulary the
source of the irregularity?
Perhaps surprisingly all the ‘foreign’ verbs are regular. Latin
had a big influence on the English lexicon (see here) but not
on the grammatical structure of the language.
Steven Pinker suggest an interesting theory in his Words
and Rules (1999). He argues that irregular verbs fossils of an
Indo-European language that disappeared many thousands of
According to this theory, the Indo-Europeans wandered
across Europe and southwest Asia. They spoke language with a
regular rule in which one vowel replaced another.
Over time pronunciation changed. The ‘rules became
opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense
forms are their fossils.’
They are ‘fossils’ of an Indo-European prehistoric
How many irregular verbs?
There are now around 180 irregular verbs in English.
That may sound a lot – but it is a
small fraction of the thousands of
regular verbs. But irregular verbs
are heavily used. They make up:
✦ 70% of all the verbs we use
✦ The ten verbs we use most
often: be, have, do, say, make, go,
take, come, see, get.
How do you learn irregular verbs?
We need to work hard to memorise an irregular verb. It takes
children years to learn to use ‘spoke’ and not speaked. Some
never learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything.
Many of the grammatical mistakes commonly made by
native speakers – we was, they done etc – involve irregular
And yet children have a remarkable capacity to
memorise new words. They learn a new one every two hours
and know an average 60,000 by the age of 13.
You can find a short video about the best approach to learning irregular
Are there now fewer irregular verbs?
The number of commonly used irregular verbs is declining.
Some die of natural causes. Most modern children don’t know
the word cleave or that its past is clove. Nor are they likely to
come across abide/abode.
Other irregulars like dream and learn are gradually
becoming regular. How long can dreamt survive alongside
As English becomes ever more international, the simpler
verb forms become more dominant.
Despite this there is no danger of irregular verbs
disappearing. Even before they learn to read most children can