Tuesday, 9 June 2009

And the millionth English Word is...

Author: Dorien Knockaert

Language – Brussels – English daily acquires fifteen new words. That is what Global Language Monitor (an American technology-company) has calculated. According to its statistics, tomorrow the language will acquire its millionth word, while Dutch dictionary Van Dale not even counts 300,000 words…

From our editor

Will it be ‘de-friend’, ‘Mobama’ or ‘financial tsunami’? Global Language Monitor (GLM) that specialises in language trends, is eager to increase tension by Wednesday afternoon. Then it will finally announce what is, according to its measuring-system, the millionth English word. With its campaign, GLM wants to draw attention to the increasing growth of English and plans to proclaim it ‘the first real world-language’. ‘In 1960, 250 million people spoke English, mainly in the ex-colonies of the United Kingdom. Today, 1.53 billion people use English as their mother-tongue, their second or work-language,’ GLM says on its website.

Paul JJ Payack, the man behind GLM – not a linguist, but technology-expert – says he is totally sure that his software only counts words that are used a lot or that carry a lot of weight within their meaning. So for example names of unknown chemicals it does not take into consideration. The reason for his list being so enormous is simply the phenomenal growth of the English language, he says. ‘Daily 14.7 words enter the language.’

A million is so spectacularly much that the number encounters a lot of doubt, certainly among linguists. Also the fact that GLM’s system and aims keep on being quite vague, does not contribute to its trustworthiness. And whoever compares the number to leading dictionaries of English, sees a very big discrepancy. Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 476,000 words in it, Dutch dictionary Van Dale round about 268,000.

Although, dictionary-writers do not put all words they encounter in their dictionary. ‘It is totally wrong to presume that a word does not exist if it is not in a dictionary,’ says Ruud Hendricks, head editor of Van Dale. ‘We only put a word in the paper-edition of our dictionary if it has been in regular use for a number of years in newspapers and the like. And in order to avoid making the dictionary uselessly thick, we also take words out. For the electronic yearbooks we publish, we are less complacent: in there we will signal a new term much faster. This year, new terms will include a lot of expressions that popped up in the reporting on the financial crisis. Some, though, will disappear fairly quickly again.’

A language is uncountable for various reasons. Linguists know that. ‘Vocabulary is something infinite: one can always make new composites. We do not put all those into a dictionary as the meaning of most is instantly clear.’

It is right to say, however, that English is a very big and flexibly growing language, confirms Hendrickx. ‘The grammar imposes fewer limitations on word-use than in Dutch and the vocabulary is since the early days rich and divers: the basic material of English is Germanic, but because of the Normans, a lot of Latin words came into it and the Vikings added some Scandinavian ones. It is because of that that the English can say ‘pig’ to a pig that is alive, and ‘pork’ to a dead one. They have a treasure of language-material at their disposal.’

The nominees:

Financial Tsunami: the worldwide financial restructuring which made in a few months’ time collapse gigantic capitals and financial institutions.

Zombie banks: banks that would not exist anymore if they hadn’t been saved with public money.

Jai Ho: a Hindi expression that means as much as ‘halleluja’ and that became popular in English through the hit-film Slumdog Millionnaire.

Chiconomics: the art of looking chic and stylish despite the economic crisis.

Mobama: the style of the new American First Lady

Octomom: a mother of octuplets.

Green-washing: like one white-washes money, one can green-wash a piece of old rubbish: upgrading through presenting it as an environmentally friendly recycled product.

Slow Food: the opposite of fast-food: healthy, locally produced food.

De-friend: scrapping a ‘friend’ from your contacts list on a social networking site.

(the two articles were translated from De Standaard)

What Hendrickx forgets to say, however, is that the Taalunie (the Language Union between the Netherlands and Flanders (yes, we speak the same language!)) makes a sport of it to prohibit expressions, grammar-constructions and what-not because they are ‘false’… Despite the fact that they have been used by the great majority of people mostly in one part of the Union for years. If the construction is too French, it is called a Gallicism, too English equals an Anglicism, a second word for an old one (like the case ‘umbrella’ and ‘rain-screen’, but there are more ridiculous cases than that) is called a Purism, too old is an Archaism. What he also does not mention, and I suppose that is because he is now head editor of Van Dale (the leading dictionary in the Dutch language, like the Oxford English Dictionary in English), is that Flemish words (regionally used in Flanders mostly) are labeled in the dictionary ‘Southern Dutch’ while really Dutch words (from the Netherlands), known by Flemish people but never used because they are Dutch, are not labeled at all. True, we speak the same language, but it is a case like American and British English, with the same spelling. British English is not worth more than American English... British spelling is not worth more than American spelling. They are equally right, in their context. Therefore they are labeled the same...

Actually, let’s be frank, Dutch is a very pedantic language and English is not. English is free and just because of that it is used all over the world by people who add their own words to it… English would never have become a world language, if it had had the same approach as Dutch (‘no, that is not right, you have to say it like this.’). Jai Ho would just never have entered the Dutch list because it means the same as ‘halleluja’ and we already have that and so it is a Purism, probably. So would be the lot of ‘green-washing’ as that is a euphemism for ‘recycle’ and ‘chiconomics’ would not stand a chance because no-one would think about it.

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