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Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 11:42 UK

The words in the mental cupboard


By Caroline Gall
BBC News Magazine

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.

Airline pulp - airline food
Cutties - formal Indian term for ladies' underwear
Noob - neophyte in computer gaming
Truthiness - having the ring of truth though false
Source: Global Language Monitor

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.

Child at a spelling bee
Some children start school knowing 6,000 words, others just 500

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.

Ammon Shea
American Ammon Shea (above)spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary
He digested 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words
'I'm not against big words per se... but I'm opposed to using them for their own sake,' he said

"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.

The Sun v The Bible

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."

But surely, the perfect outlet for having a vast vocabulary is Scrabble.

Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder Tony Robinson as Baldrick in the comedy sitcom
'My enthusiastic contrafibularities...' - formal speech Blackadder style

Allan Simmons, crowned UK champion last year, says he can recognise around 100,000 of the 160,000 words of nine letters or under included on the Scrabble list.

"I've always liked words, their meanings and dictionaries. Patterns of words are interesting - I see it as an art form.

"I have a good memory and a lot of words I learn just for the game although that is a bit artificial."

And while the language grows, words will fall out of use by being replaced.

Experts predict words like "stab" or "throw", have a language lifetime of about 800 to 1,000 years whereas the words "three", "five", "I" and "who" may last anything up to 20,000 years.

So as new words are created at such a pace will we ever keep track? Worry not, says Prof Crystal.

"Of course words become obsolete when they are not used in everyday speech. Look at Shakespeare's plays. But words never, ever get forgotten."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I like words, and not just meanings but sounds of them. But I've noticed that people tend to use very few adjectives, which are like seasoning for a dish. A pity.
Sandra, Glos

Forget words, it's all about acronyms these days.
Oscar Nowak, London

Unfortunately, one is considered elitist if one uses words which other people cannot understand. So, in a sense, one keeps one's knowledge well under wraps.
Berenice Mortimer, Westlock, Canada

"Tick off the ones you know and count them then, multiply that with the number of pages and you will discover how many words you know." Let's hope their vocabulary is better than their maths. (For innumerate: count the words you know, divide by the number of pages you have looked at, and multiply by the number of pages in the dictionary.)
Simon Levene, Richmond, England

He is not alone - I used to read dictionaries and encyclopedias, loved the National Geographic. Sad as it sounds I still love reading dictionaries especially foreign language to English.
KatyaL, London

I remember my horror as a trainee teacher covering the legend of Beowulf with a year 7 class, at being told by one little boy that Beowulf 'had a bling-bling shield' ...
Kate Jones, Lancaster UK

In addition to the obvious advantages to be found in having an extensive vocabulary, it is also necessary to master correct pronunciation and spelling. I wonder how many people have counted the astronomically high number of sub-titling errors on their DVDs? I am not referring here to (forgivable, maybe, if unprofessional) errors in translation from a foreign language, but straight English to English.
David Hunt, Niort, France

The lexicostatistic data (how long words last) has been considered by most linguists to be hugely flawed since it was first proposed; it's not like any word has a shelf-life, and any research which uses this technique should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. English is odd among languages in that it has a dual-source vocabulary. A word like 'superficial' is derived from Latin roots and really has to be learnt specially, but in most languages, terms like this are formed from common native elements. So in German the word is 'oberflächlich', literally 'upper-surface-ly'. A native German speaker doesn't really need a dictionary to work out what it means.
Dr Mark J. Jones, Cambridge, England

When I was about 4 my parents tried to make a list of the words I knew. I think my Mum still has it. I remember it included Abominable but they stopped on A because there were too many. But that was in the Sixties when erudition was not eschewed
Steve, London, UK

When training as a primary school teacher, I was often shocked at the desperately limited vocabulary of some of my class mates. How can children develop a reasonable vocabulary if even their teachers can't support them? I saw experienced teachers "dumb down" their speech when talking to pupils, which is both patronising and unhelpful.
Ruth, Leicester, UK

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