The English Language: 900,000 Words, and Counting

An organization called Global Language Monitor estimates there are more than 900,000 words in the English language, and more are being added every day. Alex Chadwick talks with Paul Payack, president of Global Language Monitor, about his organization's method of counting words and the quickly approaching one-million-word milestone.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. An off hand New York Times reference to a word count caught our attention a few days ago. The word count is this, 986,120 and what that designates is the total number of words in the English language. Wow, we thought. Getting very close to the one million milestone. So we called list compiler Paul J.J. Payack who runs something called the Global Language Monitor, which is based in San Diego, California. Paul Payack welcome to Day to Day.

Mr. PAUL PAYACK (President of Global Language Monitor): Great to be here.

CHADWICK: What English language are you measuring when you get up to a word count of 986,120?

Mr. PAYACK: Well we're measuring what we call global English. Not just American English, not just British English, but English as it's spoken around the world. The newest phenomenon in that way is called Chinglish, which is a combination of Chinese and English. It's a new phenomenon over there.

CHADWICK: If I heard Chinglish would I understand it?

Mr. PAYACK: You, you'd understand what was said; you really wouldn't comprehend it though.

CHADWICK: Okay, so English is kind of a world wide language now spoken by many many people and that contributes to the word count 986 thousand and some odd. Are we really getting close to a million? How quickly do you add new words?

Mr. PAYACK: It seems like we're adding a minimum of ten thousand a year.

CHADWICK: Ten thousand a year, so we are getting kind of close then?

Mr. PAYACK: We are getting very close and it could happen in the next few months is how we're looking at it. And this is excluding like scientific words. Now not just scientific jargon, because we count those as words. But we don't include like if there's a million new species of mold and they all have names, we don't include those as spoken English.

CHADWICK: And how do you keep track of all this?

Mr. PAYACK: Well what we do is we have an algorithm, which is basically a mathematical formula that we feed different functions and numbers into etcetera. We go out and survey everything we can on the Internet, and English happens to be the lingua franca of the age. And so we see how many times English comes up, we have a network that we affectionately call the language police who are our language observers around the world. What they do is they constantly update us on what's interesting in language and what spheres wherever English is spoken right now.

CHADWICK: People must dispute this. People must stay your count is wrong, and you're way too many and that sort of thing.

Mr. PAYACK: Well it's really interesting. In western science you can actually estimate the number of atomic particles in the entire universe. That's estimated at 10 to the 78th. But when you talk about the number of English words there are fierce academic fights. And it usually boils down to that you cannot even count what a word is, what is a word? And it becomes like this postpartum deconstructionist fight over the nature of language, the nature of words, etc. It's usually settled by well there's no way to count the words so we're not going to do it. We can't even estimate it.

CHADWICK: Are you subtracting words too? I mean if words go completely out of circulation so one would never hear them in conversation. Eek, for instance, eek is an old English word that means also.

Mr. PAYACK: Once a word is in print or used in something that's recorded, once it's part of the record, they always stay in the dictionary.

CHADWICK: 986,120 words, how, is there any other language that has that many words?

Mr. PAYACK: No it's like English is interesting in so far as it incorporates every word that it can. English happens to incorporate everything. And if you just think about things. It's like where did ketchup come from, did you ever notice that when you look at the word ketchup, it's spelled like five different ways?

CHADWICK: Right.

Mr. PAYACK: I mean is why? Well because it's Malay, it's Malaysian meaning fish sauce. Okay?

CHADWICK: Ketchup means fish sauce?

Mr. PAYACK: It doesn't have a Latin root that you would normally expect when you're speaking a lot of English words but English is principally a Germanic languages, it's Greek, it's Latin, okay, and it's every culture that came into North America and that the Brits touched and it's just incorporated all these different words.

CHADWICK: A million words in the English language. I was just thinking, maybe that calls for a celebration. How would you celebrate? Well, we hit it a million words in the English language.

Mr. PAYACK: Well we'd invent some new words I guess.

CHADWICK: Paul Payack, Paul Payack runs the Global Language Monitor. It's based in San Diego, California. Paul, happy words to you.

Mr. PAYACK: Good talking to you Alex.

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