English Language Vocabulary
- (Wikipedia, 2009) ⇒ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_language#Number_of_words_in_English
- The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2) includes over 600,000 definitions, following a rather inclusive policy: "It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang (Supplement to the OED, 1933). ”
- The editors of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (475,000 main headwords) in their preface, estimate the number to be much higher. It is estimated that about 25,000 words are added to the language each year. 
- How many words are there in the English language? http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutenglish/numberwords
- There is no single sensible answer to this question. It is impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it is so hard to decide what counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning 'a kind of animal', and a verb meaning 'to follow persistently')? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (dogs plural noun, dogs present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since we might also find hot-dog or even hotdog?
- It is also difficult to decide what counts as 'English'. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Youth slang? Computing jargon?
- The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).
- This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.
- What we mean by word sounds obvious, but it’s not. Take a verb like climb. The rules of English allow you to generate the forms climbs, climbed, climbable, and climbing, the nouns climb and climber (and their plurals climbs and climbers), compounds such as climb-down and climbing frame, and phrasal verbs like climb on, climb over, and climb down. Now, here’s the question you’ve got to answer: are all these distinct words, or do you lump them all together under climb?
- That this is not a trivial question can be proved by looking at half a dozen current dictionaries. You won’t find two that agree on what to list. Almost every word in the language has this fuzzy penumbra of inflected forms, separate senses and compounds, some to a much greater extent than climb. To take a famous case, the entry for set in the Oxford English Dictionary runs to 60,000 words. The noun alone has 47 separate senses listed. Are all these distinct words?
- And in a wider sense, what do you include in your list of words? Do you count all the regional variations of English? Or slang? Dialect? Family or private language? Proper names and the names of places? And what about abbreviations? The biggest dictionary of them has more than 400,000 entries — do you count them all as words? And what about informal and formal names for living things? The wood louse is known in Britain by many local names — tiggy-hog, cheeselog, pill bug, chiggy pig, and rolypoly among others. Are these all to be counted as separate words? And, to take a more specialist example, is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the formal name for bread yeast, to be counted as a word (or perhaps two)? If you say yes, you’ve got to add another couple of million such names to the English-language word count. And what about medical terms, such as syncytiotrophoblastic or holoprosencephaly, that few of us ever encounter?
- The other difficult term is vocabulary. What counts as a word that somebody knows? Is it one that a person uses regularly and accurately? Or perhaps one that will be correctly recognised — say in written text — but not used? Or perhaps one that will be understood in context but which the person may not easily be able to define? This distinction between what linguists call active and passive vocabularies is hard to measure, and it skews estimates.
- The problem doesn’t stop there. English speakers not only know words, they know word-forming elements, such as the ending -phobia for some irrational fear. A journalist rushing to meet a deadline might take a word he knows, like Serb, and tack on the ending to make Serbophobia. He’s just added a word to the language (probably only temporarily), but can he really be said to have that word in his vocabulary? If nobody ever uses it again, can we legitimately count it? By reversing the coining process, a reader of the newspaper can easily work out the word’s origin and meaning. Has the reader also added a word to his vocabulary?
- Jesse Sheidlower. (2006). “Are there really 988,968 words in the English language? http://www.slate.com, Posted Monday, April 10, 2006.
- The problem with trying to number the words in any language is that it's very hard to agree on the basics. For example, what is a word? If run is a verb, is the noun run another word? What about the inflected forms ran, runs, and running? What about words with run as a base, such as runner and runnable and runoff and runway? Are compounds, such as man-bites-dog, man-child, man-eater, manhandle, man-hour, man of God, man's man, and men in black, to be counted once or many times?
- What about obvious forms? Dictionaries include great-grandfather but not great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, which is real enough to get over 3,500 Google hits. Only the most basic numbers are typically included; Merriam-Webster, for example, includes twenty-one and twenty-two, but not twenty-three or thirty-one. In fact, if you were to count every number between 0 and 999,999 as a word, you'd have a cool million right there — and still have the rest of the English language to account for.