The One Millionth English Word is ‘Rubbish’

Posted: 26 May 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Paul Payak of the Global Language Monitor is claiming the 1 millionth English word is coming soon.  He says a new English word is coined every 98 minutes, so the 1 million marker will arrive about 15 days hence.  The CBS article that tipped me off to this is pretty amusing in the quotes it selected from linguists, which resoundingly cried “bullshit.”  But the best quote came from Payak himself:

We believe words can be counted if you define them in the right way. You can count them like anything else in science. You can count how many atoms there are in the ocean.

Let’s think about counting the atoms in the ocean for a moment. What about where rivers flow into the ocean? Where is the boundary line? Salt and fresh water are mingling quite a bit and finding the exact boundary is pretty much impossible. If we draw an arbitrary line, surely we will get too much in one place and too little in another. Also, what about rain and evaporation? Counting the atoms would require an instantaneous snapshot of the entire ocean at the atomic level. It can’t be done.

You run into similar problems counting words.  Compound words blend into single words and words leave the language as well as enter it.  How do you detect this?  You’d need a snapshot of the entire English language as it is spoken, typed, and read all around the world.  What is a word in one dialect isn’t necessarily a word in another dialect.  Where do you draw the line?

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  1. altrius says:

    Pardon my intrusion. The line is to be drawn [linguistically] between prescriptive and descriptive languages. As far as descriptive languages go, there can be no definitive number of words. However, under prescriptive “laws” the number of words in a given language is decided based on what is “proper” or not. Seeing as how English has no prescriptive version of the language (other than the broken and inconsistent school textbooks used around the world) there can never be any count of the number of words for any dialect.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Pardon me for questioning your use of “prescriptive” and “descriptive” as ways of categorizing languages. Prescriptive and descriptive are types of grammars or ways of analyzing languages; languages themselves are not prescriptive or descriptive.

  2. tejas k says:

    Certainly I agree that you need snapshot of ocean at any point to count all the atoms …..( well isn’t water a molecule? i mean are we counting water molecules ? ) in the ocean. We can block all the rivers in the world from flowing into the sea or cover all the ocean so that rain doesnt fall in the ocean. Now before you call me stupid let me tell you why we dont do it.
    It can be done. But not with present technology and resources humans have. Secondly there is not a little value to that study.

    To answer your question “how to detect this?” Global Language Monitor which monitors number of words in English has a criteria – “English word, all of which have met the criteria of a minimum of 25,000 citations with the necessary breadth of geographic distribution, and depth of citations.”

    It makes sense that if a new word has a distinct meaning and being used by growing number of people in a wide range of geographic distribution it could be crowned a new word.

    • Jason Adams says:

      Well, if you can count molecules, you can count atoms. But there is more than just water in the ocean. But you say it could be done. That is a possibility, but not a guarantee. That assumes a theory of technology that we take for granted, that there is no limit to what we can do, given enough resources.

      But my bigger point is that even if you could put a wall around the ocean, any wall you build is still arbitrary. Sure, you will have a snapshot of only salt water, but it’s an ocean that is artificial — not the real ocean you’re trying to measure. Let’s say you put walls up in all the rivers and streams and sewage pipes that lead into the ocean and you cover the surface of the ocean. Each wall would be an arbitrary line until the water flows into the sea. Are we sure we didn’t trap any on the other side? What about the water that would have evaporated under normal circumstances in the time it took that remaining water to flow in?

      Perhaps the GLM uses a reasonable criteria for determining a word’s entrance to the language, but it’s still arbitrary. There are words used for things by millions of people in a single town or state that may not be included in the GLM’s count by those criteria.

      And of course, where is this word list? Where is the peer review? They could be making it up!

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