English Language Officially Tops 1M Words

Well, not quite, but it’s coming up. Set aside June 11th, 2009, to celebrate! English, the most comprehensive language on earth, the great sponge that soaks up ideas from everywhere, that wondrous conglomeration of everything pronounceable (and some things that aren’t), will soon hit the 1 million mark.

That’s 1M words. 1,000,000 words.

At least according to the Language Monitor, a blog that’s in love with the language. Or at least it’s in love with the words. I guess real language has to have lots of words, but there are other things here and there, such as parts of speech, grammar, pronunciation, and all those little details, to get to a real language.

But it is still nice to think that we have about double the number of words of any other language.

According to the Language Monitor (which has a countdown clock to when we hit 1M), we add a new word to the language, such as “greenwashing” or other such trendy things, every 98 minutes. Apparently a word is “official” when it’s used 25,000 times in the media. We’re scheduled to go over the top on June 11th, 2009, at 10:22 a.m. British Summer Time, which is 3:22 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time. (I may wait until the sun is up to celebrate.)

Unfortunately, however, the Language Monitor site doesn’t have a list of the words. So I can’t check if “hooferah” or “complexification” made the cut. I doubt it. But new words can be oddly attractive. I once did a consulting gig for a company in Alexandria, Virginia, and was told that “complexification” swept through the building like wildfire. So perhaps I’ve had more of a mark on humanity than merely writing the American Flying Broomstick novels.

Sadly, the trend in writing (in America) is to dumb things down. Few syllables. Short sentences. Common words everyone understands. In my opinion, this impoverishes the language and saps its strength. Subtleties are lost.

And, it’s my opinion (I have lots of opinions, all free and worth what you pay for them) that the language a person speaks is also the language in which the person thinks, which means that the language structure itself guides (and limits) what a person can think. The fewer words we use, the more limited our ability to think. The book 1984 includes this little trick in the government’s propaganda campaign to substitute simple feel-good phrases for actual thought. I think both major US political parties have mastered this technique.

Fortunately, the British seem immune to this problem, at least for now. I read extensively, mostly on the history of technology, and British books seem to revel in exploring the obscure corners of the language. I head for the dictionary frequently and gratefully. Gratefully because if I have to look something up, I’m learning. Some of those words found their way into my novels.

I love the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s books. But they were written under the assumption that little kids really don’t understand grown up concepts too well. In fact, I thought the Disney interpretation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe actually improved on the book by adding a depth not found in its pages. J.K. Rowling laid the assumption of children’s inability to grasp complex concepts to rest with her Harry Potter series. She didn’t exactly reach for the dark corners of the language, but she didn’t mince words, either. Children’s books reaching 800+ pages? Can you imagine? But kids read them. And understood them.

So I don’t dumb down the American Flying Broomstick books. And children have read them. And understood them. I wrote them as though speaking to an intelligent adult and they assume a fairly clear understanding of what the working world is like, but kids have been able to reach past that and enjoy the story anyway. I never thought I was writing to children, but by accident I did. I guess some themes need no experiential background to understand.

Anyway, do please put June 11th on your calendar and celebrate the most diverse language mankind has ever known.

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