Posted on June 16, 2009

English Acquires Its Millionth Word

Ben Macintyre, Times of London, June 11, 2009

English has now acquired its millionth word, according to a website monitoring the extraordinary emergence of new English throughout the world, including slang, word-marriages with other languages and the thousands of new terms spawned by the internet.

“The Million Word milestone brings to notice the coming of age of English as the first truly global language”, said Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor.

Whether one accepts Mr Payack’s claim depends on how one defines the word “word”.

As of 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary contained 301,100 main entries. Adding in combination words, derivatives and phrases brings the OED total to 616,500 word-forms.

The Global Language Monitor, however, accepts as a word any coinage that has gained sufficiently wide usage: this includes hybrid words in Chinglish (Chinese English), Hinglish (Hindi English), Spanglish (Spanish English), Hollywords (terms created by the film industry), computer jargon and words forged by the internet.

Appropriately enough, the 1,000,000th word accepted as genuine yesterday was “Web 2.0” which was defined as “the next generation of web products and services, coming soon to a browser near you”.

Three other terms narrowly lost out to “Web 2.0” in the race the million mark: “Jai Ho!” a Hinglish expression signifying a major accomplishment; “slumdog” (made popular by the film Slumdog Millionaire), meaning a child slum dweller, and “n00b”, a mixture of letters and zeros which is a mocking term for a newcomer in the online gamer community.

If the Global Language Monitor is right in its calculation, for every French word, there are now ten in English, or nearly-English.

Mr Payack and his colleagues use what they call a Predictive Quantities Indicator to assess whether a usage qualifies as a word: each contender is analysed according to depth (number of citations) and breadth (geographic extent of word usage), as well as the number of times a word has appeared in the global print and electronic media, the Internet, blogs, and social media such as Twitter and YouTube. Words need a minimum of 25,000 citations to qualify.

Purists, professional lexicographers and traditional Scrabble players are all likely to reject many of the words accepted by the Global Language Monitor.

But whether or not English can be said to contain a million real words, the survey reflects the extraordinary explosion of modern English, and the way its rapid spread has caused the language to mutate into new, wonderful and sometimes baffling shapes.

A generation ago, some 250 million spoke English. Today, approximately 1.5 billion people speak the language as a primary, secondary or business language. About 250 million people are learning English in China alone.

Mr Payack estimates that new words are entering the language at the rate of 14.7 words a day. The internet has also revived the possibilities for independent word-coinage in a way not seen since Shakespeare’s time, when the language was acquiring its modern structure and words were being invented faster than ever before. Of the 24,000 words used by Shakespeare, some 1,700 were his own inventions.

The internet has ushered in the second great age of neologism (new words), with an astonishing efflorescence of words and phrases to describe new ideas or reshape old ones. In the past, a word slowly spread and gained acceptance through usage or literature. If a word works today, the internet can breathe instant life into it, and as a result, modern, non-standard English is evolving at warp speed.

The language of the internet has itself evolved, with words that were once preserve of the cyber-boffins gaining universal acceptance: blog, byte, e-mail, spam, twitter and so on. Ancient or Classic Geek has evolved into Modern Geek.

The spread of English in the 20th century was remarkable enough: in the first decade of the 21st century, however, it has evolved and expanded more rapidly, and more strangely, than any language in history. Jai Ho!