Monday, January 3, 2011

English language has doubled in size in a century

According to this article in the Telegraph, the English language has doubled in size in the past century, growing more than 70% just since 1950. Amazing, isn't it? That shows the real strength of English.

Compare that to French, for example, where purists have long waged a war against borrowing new words from other languages (notably English). In their attempt to keep the French language pure and uncontaminated, they've ended up with a much smaller vocabulary.

English, on the other hand, is a Germanic language with a long history of borrowing foreign words, including from Latin, French, Spanish, etc.  And we've become adept at inventing new words from scratch, as well.

You rarely hear anyone worried about the "purity" of the English language (although there are plenty of bigoted loonies in America upset about the growing use of Spanish).

True, it's hard to compare vocabularies precisely, because dictionaries vary so much. What words are actually accepted, actually in use? What words are just jargon or otherwise used only by specialists? What foreign words should actually be considered as part of the English language now?

And it's also true that an unequal vocabulary size doesn't necessarily mean that one language is "better" than another. Still, I love the richness that a large vocabulary gives a language, even if it isn't absolutely... necessary. And I have to think that a healthy language is a growing language.

Then again, what do I know? Like most Americans, I only know one language. I wish it were different. In college, I studied some French, German, Spanish, and Italian - but not enough of any of them to actually learn anything.

But languages have never been static. Like life itself, languages must continually change, or die. If you try to lock a language in a gilded cage, as something to admire but not actually use, it will die. Tradition be damned. Languages must adapt, must evolve, must grow in order to stay healthy.

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

I am fascinated by languages and their development although, like you Bill, I never learned a second one.

I understand that the most stable language in the developed world is Icelandic, in which modern speakers can apparently read sagas written a thousand years ago. Whether they could understand the accent of an Icelander from 1,000 years ago is a different matter, of course.

Still, their vocabulary would have had to increase considerably to describe the modern world, so it's a safe bet that a Icelander from 1,000 years ago wouldn't understand much of a modern conversation!