Tag: History

I was always curious how this can be that so much would be borrowed from French if English has 1 million words and French has, what, maybe 100,000 tops? Rome invaded England before France did, and there were also the Danish, Norwegian, Greek and Dutch influences, and also English is a Germanic language itself, closest to the endangered language Frisian.

(asked by Diane)

Well, we’re straying away from French stuff here as we’re going to talk about the English language mostly, but as it’s a topic that I love, bear with me.

William the Conqueror
William the Great Importer of French Words in the English Language (source Wikimedia)

Let’s start by getting your numbers correct. Whoever told you that English has one million words was clearly delusional (or a bit too biased?). While it’s hard to count the number of words in any language, especially with languages like English that can create new words easily by linking two words (is “hot-dog” one word or two?), here is what the Oxford Dictionary has to say about it:

“171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”

A few lines later, after having added a few types of words (technical terms and such) they conclude by “a quarter of a million distinct English words”.
I feel that this is a realistic number. Of course, I’m sure one can get to one million when adding concatenated words (that’s “hot-dog”), words from dialects (which are clearly not English as they’re dialects), words from old English and whatnot, one can get to a million, but let’s stay realistic here and let’s stick to English (no dialects) and contemporary English (no obsolete words), and let’s say 250,000 words.

Among those words, a conservative estimate for the number of words from French origins is about 50% (although the truth may be closer to 60% if not 70%, but let’s stay conservative on this topic). And no, I don’t separate French words and Latin words as some statistics do, for two reasons:

  • Latin words came to the English language through French and France  during the Middle Ages. French was simply the everyday language while Latin was the scholarly language, but they were spoken by the same people (that’s the ones who were educated) and those are the same people that brought both to England.
  • This separation obviously comes from the fact that there’s a will to diminish the importance of French (and of France) in the English language as well as the will to make English closer to Latin. Funny how Centuries later, Latin still has this aura of superiority and whatnot.

As far as French is concerned, it seems harder to find an accurate number. The very web 1.0 French Academy’s website stays as vague as it can and mentions the number of words found in dictionaries (a number which has nothing to do with the actual number of existing words), other websites here and there give numbers ranging from 30,000 to 100,000. This huge discrepancy comes most likely from the fact that French language Talibans would rather blow themselves up than accept words like “parking” as French words.
In any case, it’s a fact that French has fewer words than English, and yes it is true that English is most likely the language that has the highest number of words in the world.

Don’t get too cocky though, this doesn’t mean anything in terms of richness of a language and let’s not even think about going in the direction of “superiority”.

What it tells us is one thing and one thing only: English is a “mutt language” finding its origins from many other languages; also it is one of the languages that accepts the most easily foreign words and brand new words in its lexicon.

However, in the end of the end of the day, the average English speaker can spend his/her entire life using only 3,000 to 6,000 of those words. Same goes for the average French speaker and the average speaker of many languages.

I know, I haven’t really started to answer the question yet. I’m getting there.

Read the Post How this can be that so much would be borrowed from French in the English language?