Number of Words in the English Language
edited: Saturday, February 14, 2004
By Paul JJ Payack
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, April 21, 2003
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The Number of Words in the
English Language: The WordMan's Perspective
There are many things in the Universe that can never be precisely measured but that doesn't stop Humankind from attempting to take their measure. For example, there are on the order of:7,300 human languages and dialects; about 50,000 ideograms in the various Chinese dialects (though countless more words); about 100,000,000 stars in the Milky Way galaxy, (and 100,000,000 galaxies in the universe); over 35,000,000 residents of California; then there are 10 raised 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; there are fewer than 100,000 words in the French language; there are some 6 billion folks on the planet; (and about 20 billion that have ever walked upon the Earth); fewer than 20,000 different words in the Bible, and 24,000 in the works of Shakespeare. And, if you emptied all the water out of Lake Tahoe and spread it evenly over all of California it would be about 14 inches deep, not that anyone would ever attempt to do so. Or actually care. Which brings us to the number of words in English. The central idea of writing is, of course, the idea. Ideas by their very nature are wispy sorts of things. This being so, you can't grab an idea and do with it what you will. Rather the best for which one can hope is to encapsulate the idea and preserve it for time immemorial in some sort of ethereal amber. We call this amber, language; the basic building block of which is, of course, the word. (We are speaking now as poets and not as linguists.)As such, writers of English have the good fortune of having hundreds of thousands of words from which to choose. When you think of it, the English language writer always has at least three words for any idea, each rooted in the Latin, the Germanic or Saxon tongues, and the Greek. Think of a word for human habitation: city, town, metropolis, and so on. And that's just the start. In the English-speaking world we also owe a heavy debt to Algonquin, and Hebrew, and Malay (ketchup anyone?) and Maori, and Zulu and Hmong among a multitude of others. I think you can spot the beginnings of a trend here. And then there is the entire realm of 'jargon,' scientific and otherwise, those specialized patois or vocabularies known only to those in specific fields. Computer-related jargon is multiplying at an extraordinary rate. And since English has become the lingua Franca of the Internet, English words are being created and non-English words co-opted at an ever-quickening pace. By the way, neurologists estimate that there are some 10,000,000,000 neurons in a typical human brain. Or so they say. Each of these neurons can theoretically interconnect with all the rest. This being so, the number of interconnects within a single human brain is greater than the entire number of atomic particles in the universe. If you equate these interconnects to ideas, or even thoughts, the number of potential words needed to express them is, indeed, staggering on the order of billions of trillions. This all being said, I now unequivocally state that as of 11:16 am (Pacific) on June 29th of the year 2001, there were approximately 816,119 words in the English Language, plus or minus a handful. Choose well among them.