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Size Doesn't Matter

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary,
April 18, 2006

At any one moment there are hundreds of made-up statistics floating around in the media, and fully 37 percent of them have to do with language. There are 40 million Americans who speak no English. Communication is 90 percent nonverbal. Eskimo has 87 different words for snow. If you believe any of that, I've got an Inuit thesaurus I'd like to sell you.

But the media have an endless and uncritical appetite for these nuggets, particularly when they seem to confirm some cherished linguistic lore. And there's no shortage of hucksters ready to satisfy that need. Take one Paul J. J. Payack, a California marketing executive who runs an outfit called the Global Language Monitor, and who has a gift for concocting appealing factoids about language trends. Back in February, for example, Payack announced that using a secret algorithm, he had determined that the English language contained exactly 986,120 words, and that it would pass the million mark this fall.
The item got wide coverage -- it was picked up by sources from the New York Times to Reuters to NPR. And it does have a certain Googlish plausibility to it. With all this stuff out there on the Web, you might conclude that you can count pretty much anything. But not even the Web allows you to eavesdrop on every conversation in every nook and cranny of the English-speaking world. And even if you could, there's no easy way to tell how many different words you're dealing with. Is play the same word when it refers to a theater play, a baseball play, fair play, and a stock-market play? Is it the same word in playing the violin, playing third base and playing someone for a sucker? Is player different words when it refers to Barry Bonds and Puffy Combs?[1]

When it comes to the crunch, trying to count the words of the language is as futile an exercise as trying to determine exactly how many socks Americans lost in 2005. But Payack's claim bestows a satisfying statistical patina on a familiar story about the glorious amplitude of English. People never tire of boasting that English has more words than any other language. And they invariably go on to praise the openness and flexibility of the language and the marvelous expressiveness and richness of vocabulary that has made it the envy of lesser tongues.
Granted, our dictionaries can lick their dictionaries. Merriam Webster's Third International clocks in at around half a million words, against a mere 150,00 for the biggest dictionaries the French or Russians can come up with. But that doesn't mean we have more words for the things that matter. Once you get past fifty thousand words or so, you're strictly in crossword puzzle territory -- and I mean the hard ones that the New York Times runs toward the end of the week. There are about 120 entries on the page of Webster's Third that contains the word okay, for example.  But only half-a-dozen or so are words that anyone could actually work into a conversation, like ointment, old and oink. The rest are items like oinochoe, oka, and oke, which if you'll cast your mind back are respectively the words for an ancient Greek wine pitcher, a cheese made by Canadian Trappist monks, and a unit of weight used in Turkey and Egypt.

And then there are the names of all those fishes: oilfish; o'io, the Hawai'an bonefish; olisthops, an Australian herring; and of course oldwife, which depending on where you're sitting down to dinner can be a kind of bream, triggerfish, perch, shad, or pompano. Over the centuries, English-speakers have planted their flags besides a lot of different waters, and they've always found a use for the poles afterwards. But it's unlikely that the vision of a language with 5000 fish names probably would have ignited envy in the heart of Garcia-Lorca or Kafka or Flaubert (well, okay, maybe in Flaubert it would have).

There's something bizarre about the satisfaction we take in our swollen wordbooks, as if English-speakers in Des Moines are enriched every time someone in Dublin or Delhi coins a new slang word for a ne'er-do-well. It's really the last residue of the imperial pride that used to swell in British bosoms at the contemplation of all the bits of the map that were colored pink.

Of course nowadays it's only the English language that the sun never sets on, and we're more likely to take that as a tribute to our charm than to our global power. That explains the appeal of another of Mr. Payack's factoids: according to his algorithms, he says, the most frequently spoken word on the planet is okay. More humbug. It isn't easy to say what the most frequently spoken word on the planet is -- most likely it's a toss-up between English the and the Chinese particle de. But it's unlikely that okay would even make the top 1,000.  In fact okay is far from being the most widely diffused English word -- that honor would probably go to either Coca-Cola or CIA.
But there's something comforting in the idea that okay is America's most successful linguistic export -- it lets us believe that the triumph of English reflects the allure of our popular culture rather than our economic or political clout. This is a story about Tom Hanks, not Halliburton. Whatever the world may think about our policies, they like us, they really, really like us. And we've got statistics to prove it.

1. For more on this, see Jesse Sheidlower's piece in Slate. Then too, there is no way to say where the English language ends. As James Murray put it in the introduction to the OED: "[T]he vocabulary of English-speaking people presents, to the mind that endeavors to grasp it as a definite whole, the aspect of one of those nebulous masses familiar to the astronomer, in which a clear and unmistakable nucleus shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness." You can say that again. Return

Copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.