FAQs about the English Language: Vocabulary

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FAQs about the English Language: Vocabulary

  1. 1. English Vocabulary Fun Facts & FAQs:
  2. 2. 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?! ............................8 How do you learn irregular verbs?! ................9 Are there now fewer irregular verbs?!...........9 New Irregulars?!.............................................10 http://englishlanguage.eslreading.org/ http://esolebooks.com/ 2
  3. 3. How many English words are there? 'June 9, 2009 is the day when the English language reaches one million words!' 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 languages? 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.
  4. 4. 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 pronunciation. ✦ 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 words. ✦ A Russian language dictionary has around 160,000 words ✦ 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 4
  5. 5. 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 outside dictionaries. 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 traditions. ✦ has no academy to decide which words are acceptable. 5
  6. 6. 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. Irregular verbs 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 languages. 6
  7. 7. 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. 7
  8. 8. 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 years ago. 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 language. 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. 8
  9. 9. 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 verbs. 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 verbs here. 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 dreamed? 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 9
  10. 10. use 80 irregulars. They may not realise that the word ‘went’ originally came from ‘wend’ but nobody over the age of six seriously tries to replace it with ‘goed’. New Irregulars? The future is less promising for new irregular verbs. All new verbs in English are regular, including all new noun conversions: I accessed, you emailed. Even when an old verb takes a new meaning it uses a regular pattern – the army officer rung his general but his men ringed the city. For a new irregular verb to survive it must offer some familiar pattern in how it works. One of the most recent irregulars is sneak/snuck, which you find in American English. In Britain we prefer sneaked but snuck is also logical because it follows the pattern of strike/struck. © 2010 Kieran McGovern Comprehension exercises, audio, quizzes, crosswords, a glossary & other learning activities here: Where do English words come from? Blog: http://thisinterestedme.blogspot.com/ The English Language: http://englishlanguage.eslreading.org/ ESOL ebooks: http://esolebooks.com/index.html Email: kieran@eslreading.org 10

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