Thursday, 8 January 2009

A Cool Million

Welcome back, or, if you've not been here before, just welcome! Welcome to the blog, welcome to 2009. If you're anything like me, you've spent the past holiday season compulsively checking your favourite blogs for updates, finding the medieval pickings very much slimmer than at other times of the year (my heartfelt thanks go out to the Tenured Radical, Historiann, and the bloggers at In The Middle for keeping me going throughout the season). I myself am among the bloggers who did not update between Christmas and, well, now. Yeah, I know. Black pots and equally black kettles.

So I've decided to start the new year with a post about an article in the economist from December: apparently, the English language is poised to hit a million words. Of course, as they so rightly point out, this is according to one source, and there are many, many others that disagree.

That source is the Global Language Monitor, whose credibility as an authority on the English language is immediately cast into doubt because of its location in Austin, Texas -- a place where the plural of "you" is not "y'all" (short for "you all") but rather "all y'all." Because as we all should know, "y'all" is singular.

Before we all balk at the above statement, let's confront the problems inherent to counting the number of words in the English language, the chief of which is really a question of authority: who gets to decide which words are counted? If you were to ask the people over at the Oxford English Dictionary (now celebrating it's 80th birthday), they'd let you know that, as of December 2008, they had 263,917 entries (just a few shy of 1,000,000). Even if you counted multiple meanings of words -- for example using the word "table" to mean both something upon which one eats one's dinner, and a chart for use by accountants and other mathematically-minded folk -- you would still only arrive at 741,153 entries, according to the folks at the OED.

But the OED is a very conservative measure, surely. If I'm right, a word is only included if it's been in use for 40 years, barring such wonderful words as "blog" and "winningest" (the latter of which, I must say, I hope dies a horrible death at the hands of the sports commentators who invented it) from their records. But let's not be fooled into thinking that reversing this would necessarily increase the count -- what the OED lacks in modernisms, it makes up for in archaisms: for example the use of the word "egg" to mean "bomb" (to which the Monty Python fellows would doubtless respond: "sorry old man, we don't understand your banter").

And then there's the question of who gets to decide which loanwords are in fact English and which are not. Is the phrase "habeas corpus" to be considered English, if legalese? What about "quid pro quo"? Or "versus"? And for that matter, how many English words are there in "coup d'├ętat"? Are there any?

The beauty and the terror of the English language is that it is the most bastardized and unruly language ever to escape definition. It is spoken in so many ways by so many peoples that any real attempt to count the number of words with any degree of currency and accuracy is fairly pointless. So when the people over at the Global Language Monitor say that the English language has reached a million words, as no doubt they will do some time in April, let us take a moment to celebrate -- not because the count was in any way accurate, but because any excuse to celebrate this wonderfully messed-up language should be considered a good one. Time to break out the bubbly. :)




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