The way we speak now

Genevieve Roberts: English dictionaries are groaning with new words, while other tongues are dying out.

What's in a word? The English language has almost doubled in size in the past century as we are living in a rich linguistic peak.

A recent report concluded that the vocabulary is expanding by 8,500 words a year. After researchers from Harvard University and Google scanned five million books, they came to a total of 1,022,000 words in the language – including "dark matter" that will never make it into a dictionary.

Professor David Crystal, author of Evolving English, says vocabulary growth is never steady but depends on new concepts in society. "There was a peak in Shakespeare's time around the Renaissance, another during the Industrial Revolution, and another peak now with the Electronic Revolution," he says.

While there are over a million words in the English language, most readers of The Independent probably know some 75,000 words, 50,000 of which they will use actively, he estimates.

In comparison, Elizabethan English used approximately 150,000 words. Shakespeare used just under 20,000 in his plays, 12 per cent of the language. "Today, we know fewer words percentage-wise because language has increased so hugely," Professor Crystal says.

While there's a theory that English has more words than other languages, David Willis, Professor of Linguistics at Cambridge University, says it is impossible to know: "Some say English and Russian have huge vocabularies but I'm not sure if that says more about languages or dictionaries."

Eskimo languages' grammar formations mean it's possible to express what we would consider almost an entire sentence in one verb, with users forming their own, such as "to hunt rabbits repeatedly". "Once you can freely create new language, it has an infinite number of words," Willis says. "Though by other measures, it may have fewer words than English."

Vocabulary predominantly evolves through exposure to other languages. Island lexicons tend to be conservative in terms of progression, such as Icelandic. In contrast, our island's language is innovative: its Germanic roots have been influenced by the Danish, Welsh and French spoken on our soil over two millennia, and Old English is now foreign to us.

But while English is expanding, the loss of linguistic diversity is rapid. There are said to be between 4,000 and 6,000 languages, though that is falling. In February, when 85-year-old Boa Sr, the last member of the Bo tribe on the Andaman Islands, died, the language of her people, thought to date to the first migrations of man, died too.

"We'll certainly lose half of the world's languages in the next 200 years," Professor Willis says.

Fewer new languages are coming into existence. But in the last 30 years Nicaraguan sign language arose when the deaf community was brought together, while over the last century tok pisin, the national language of Papua New Guinea, has emerged.

Safeguarding language seems almost impossible. The French Academy has long been obsessed with protecting elements of identity through language, denying words such as "le chewing gum" and "le strip tease" official status, though "le pipeline" and "le bulldozer" have been deemed acceptable, on condition they are accompanied with suitably Gallic pronunciation. And last month Germany's Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer enforced a strict ban on the use of 150 English words and phrases, including "laptop", "ticket" and "meeting" within his ministry.

But Professor Willis says the rejection of single words has very little effect. "Language changes and it is a futile exercise to try to stop it," he says.

As for new-fangled words – the Collins dictionary added "Cleggmania", "tweetheart" and "fauxmania" to their latest edition – some come and go. Professor Willis says the verb "to google" is now so established that it would survive even if the brand didn't, just as "to Hoover" is in common use. Other innovations may vanish: he gives "cougar" a five-year shelf life.

In general, the creation of new words is a sign that languages are surviving: the Welsh language recently added the verb "trydaru", meaning "to tweet", to their lexicon.

"If a language is creating words, it shows it's alive," Professor Willis says. "If it doesn't change then it's dead."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions