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  • A million English words, or only 600,000? Either way, it's a language packed with more words than you'll ever need

Comments Aug 6, 2008 8:49 pm

Surely you didn't mean to leave Ogden's Basic English out of the discussion? The IAL that Churchill touted as the English for the international community, that spurred sister projects for language education and textbooks across the continents, and that George Orwell satired with Newspeak in 1984?

For reference, Basic English was basically English, except it made a few simplifications and reduced the vocabulary set to... 800 (eight hundred) words! If you google Basic English, you'll find a number of satirical articles about how cumbersome that vocabulary can be (although the Chicago Sun-Times seems to get away with using such a reduced set).

Also of note is another artificial language project that sought to use a one-word, one-phoneme vocabulary, adopting much of the International Phonetic Alphabet to do it. That vocabulary set reduced to at most 200 words. The name escapes me right now, but it was an experiment in whether or not increasing the potential speed of speech by removing syllable constructions would increase speed of language itself (and by Sapir-Whorf, thought as well).

Reply to at 8:49 pm Sep 19, 2008 3:32 am

What a well-written blog. I will be sure to monitor it in the future (and of course report any suspicious activity to Homeland Security, so watch it, Buster Smile).


You are probably familiar with the nifty, which perports to rank the 86,800 most used English words. They do not say where or how these words are used. I would like to see word usage on the Web so ranked. Is it a simplification of spoken English? A tiny fraction of written English (no doubt)? Is there anything about this on the Web? I would like to see a list, even if it is not presented so niftily as Wordcount.


If you play with Wordcount, sooner or later, after staring at that curve at the bottom, you start thinking, "I wonder how many words I could make do with?" You position the cursor at some place close to the beginning of the curve (wishing to think of yourself as efficient), but the words that pop up just after are ones that you know you use all the time, so that was wrong. Next you try further down the curve, but no, there are no words there either that remind you of W. F. Buckley, Jr. on a good day. Pretty soon you get waaaay down there and come to the conclusion, "Boy, I know a lot of words!" So, that surplus of English word choices you speak of surely must fall not only beyond 86,800, but perhaps even beyond 100K.


Wouldn't it be interesting to be able to select Wordcount's database and compare, say, the verbiage of Sunday sermons to rap music? Or astronaut utterings to Valley Girl text messages? Or Superbowl commercials to cereal box panels. However, I would settle for Written English | Spoken English | Web English. I'm not holding my breath, though.


(Please withhold E-mail address.)



Reply to at 3:32 am Oct 30, 2008 3:17 pm

Surely there are already more than a million words in English. I once read that there are well over a million named species of insect alone.

No-one will ever be able to say definitively how many words there are in English, because people's definition of a 'word' differs. Are 'organise' and 'organize' two words or one? Is 'vitae' a word? It never appears alone in English; it must be accompanied by another word, like 'curriculum' or 'aqua'. And are they English words anyway? Should you count foreign expressions used in English like 'au pair', 'sotto voce', 'ad infinitum' etc? Are 'eat, eats, eating, ate and eaten' five words, or just one? Do you count 'middle-aged' as a word, when you've presumably already counted 'middle' and 'aged'?

Reply to at 3:17 pm