Wednesday, May 06, 2009

BBC: Worries About "Word Poverty" Unfounded

Children are to be offered lessons on how to speak English formally amid fears that many are suffering from "word poverty", it has been reported. But how many words do people tend to know and use?

Do people know more words than they actually use? And is having a large vocabulary something you learn or have a natural ability for?

These are burning issues in the worlds of linguistics and education. On Monday it was reported that children in England will have lessons in formal language amid fears that some are suffering from stunted vocabularies.

US company Global Language Monitor (GLM) believes that the one millionth word will be added to the English language in mid-June.

While there is agreement that a word becomes a word when it is used by one person and understood by another, grammarians and lexicographers stand divided when deciding which to include when calculating a total.

Obamamania, bankster and bloggerati are just some of the "brand new words" GLM has been tracking.

The operation, based in Austin, Texas, says 25,000 citations in the worldwide media, social networking sites and elsewhere are its benchmark for a word to be included in its total.
They estimate a new word is created every 98 minutes.

The English language is likely to contain the most words of all languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and estimates for the number of words range from one to two million.

Agreement will probably never be reached over whether or not to include words used in botany or chemistry, let alone slang, dialects and influences from foreign shores.

Some areas GLM does not include are product names and chemicals and Paul Payack, president and chief word analyst, says the 600,000 species of fungus are not in.

So, can a precise word total ever be known? No, says Professor David Crystal, known chiefly for his research in English language studies and author of around 100 books on the subject.

"It's like asking how many stars are there in the sky. It's impossible to answer," he said.
An easier question to answer, he maintains, is the size of the average person's vocabulary.

He suggests taking a sample of about 20 or 30 pages from a medium-sized dictionary, one which contains about 100,000 entries or 1,000 to 1,500 pages.

Tick off the ones you know and count them. Then multiply that by the number of pages and you will discover how many words you know. Most people vastly underestimate their total.

"Most people know half the words - about 50,000 - easily. A reasonably educated person about 75,000 and a really cool, smart person well, maybe all of them but that is rather unusual. An ordinary person, one who has not been to university say, would know about 35,000 quite easily."

The formula can be used to calculate the number of words a person uses, but a person's active language will always be less than their passive, the difference being about a third.

Prof Crystal says exposure to reading will obviously expand a person's vocabulary but the level of a person's education does not necessarily decide things.

"A person with a poor education perhaps may not be able to read or read much, but they will know words and may have a very detailed vocabulary about pop songs or motorbikes. I've met children that you could class as having a poor education and they knew hundreds of words about skateboards that you won't find in a dictionary. We must avoid cultural elitism."

His research led him to ask people how many different words appeared on average in a copy of The Sun newspaper. All respondents came back with a low figure.

After counting a paper picked from random he found there to be about 8,000. "That's the same as the King James version of the Bible. "It is not very varied and names don't count but you see, people see headlines like 'Gotcha!' and make a judgement."


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