Have you ever wondered how many words the English language has? or how many words do you need to learn to communicate in English? In this article we will talk about that.
Truth is, there is no answer that can be too exact, since languages have a fluid character and they are always changing. However, the famous Oxford English Dictionary has entries for 171,476 words, 47,156 obsolete words and 9,500 derivative words that are included as subentries.
In the second edition of that dictionary, it is estimated that there are about 600,000 words defined, but it includes words that are no longer commonly used. The dictionary is expanded every year to add new words that are invented to either describe situations (or the world in general), or new meanings to existing words.
According to the Global Language Monitor company that monitors and records the distribution of English language words worldwide, there’s more than a million words. This company uses the words in the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Macquarie’s, calculating the new language of education in print and electronic media, scientific literature, blogs, social networks.
Also, in 2010, researchers from Harvard University and Google decided to team up for a project that looked at words digitised in books. They estimated that there’s a total of 1,022,000 words in English language, a number that would increase by thousands in the next few years. It would be important to note that these forms include the different forms of the same words, as well as archaic words that are no longer in use.
Even with the existence of this data, it is still impossible to determine exactly how many words are in a language. There are many word classes that aren’t taken into account. For example, slang words that are proper in certain regions and others that are popular for everyone in general.
There’s also jargon words used specifically in certain professions (medicine, software developers, and lawyers, among others) that add quantity to the number of English language words even though they are not used by everyone.
According to estimations from different linguists, about 1500 words are needed to communicate in everyday life. These, in theory, should provide almost 100% of normal speech perception. If we talk about reading in English, for reading comprehension about 3000 – 4000 words are necessary.
About 5000 words would be necessary for writing. In general, an active vocabulary of an educated person is between 10 and 20 thousand words. In the passive vocabulary, it can be two or three times more. A person can be called “linguistically gifted” if their number of known English vocabulary words is 60,000 words.
Don’t let these figures overwhelm you, though. People with an advanced level of English who are able to communicate without any problem in any situation can know about ten thousand words.
And, in reality, you don’t need to know an extensive amount of words to handle yourself. According to experts, 80% of the language is made up of three thousand common words (which native speakers listen and use daily).
Many beginner-level English courses aim at the student learning between 500 and 1000 words, which would be a good basis for starting to learn the language.
Now that you know this information, we will talk a little about interesting facts about the English language that will help you learn a little more about the origins of certain words and the influences of other languages in the vocabulary.
1. English wouldn’t be the same without Shakespeare.
Shakespeare invented more than 1000 words that he incorporated into his writing which native English speakers still use today.
2. The majority of English words come from French or Old English
After the Battle of Hastings (1066) the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, and his men invaded England; the Normans replaced the English ruling class with a monarchy, an aristocracy and a Church that spoke French, with the consequent change in language and culture.
Although French had displaced English as a language of the nobility, the lower classes still used Old English. Over time and the mixture of cultures through marriages, a combination of both languages occurred and it gave place to a “Middle English” language.
Words that come from French are often considered more formal or sophisticated, while words that come from Anglo-Saxon are more informal.
3. The United States does not have an official language.
Technically, the United States does not have an official language at the federal level, although some states have declared English as the official language.
4. English used to have a grammatical genre.
There are lots of languages that have a “grammatical genre.” Spanish speakers, for example, use ‘él’ and ‘la’ depending on whether the noun is masculine or feminine. English used to have a grammatical genre, but not any more.
5. English used to have 29 letters instead of 26.
The original alphabet used to write English was an Anglo-Saxon version of Futhork, a runic alphabet which included 29 characters and was arguably better for writing English
6. There’s a word for anything.
That’s the beauty of the rich English vocabulary. There’s a word to describe anything you’d like to express. From ‘hiraeth’ which means “a homesickness for a home you can’t return to, or that never was” from ‘mellifluous’ “a sound that is sweet and smooth, pleasing to hear”.
There are even words to shortly describe people, for example, ‘snollygoster’, which is a word you use to describe someone who has little to no principles, and words for situations such as ‘serendipity’ “the chance occurrence of events in a beneficial way”
7. Some words in English are repeated to create a new word.
A linguistic tautonym is a word that is made up of the same word twice. The English word “so-so” is the perfect example of a tautonym. It means “more or less” or a simple “ok, fine”.
8. There are lists of the least known English words.
Amongst those words are “brummagem” (cheap or counterfeit) and “desiderium” (a longing for something lost).
9. On average, four thousand words are added to the English dictionary each year.
10. Despite only having 26 letters, the English alphabet has up to 44 sounds.
A grapheme is the written description (a letter or cluster of letters) of one sound. It is commonly accepted that there are about 44 sounds in English, with some adaptation subject on accent and articulation
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