How large is the English language?


There is probably no exact number for the number if words in the English language but I want to ask what the ballpark number is? I read reports a few years ago about the number of words in English having exceeded one million. I was a little skeptical that it was that low. After all we can borrow just about any word from any language and use it in English as we see fit. I suspect that if we include all of the known academic disciplines out there, the number would run into the millions. I look forward to your feedback.

Millions is really doubtful. Even one million is generally considered to be a high estimate.

The average person has a vocabulary of somewhere between 10,000 and 60,000 words, depending on how well educated they are and whose statistics you use for this.

The unabridged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition both have just under 500,000 words, so under half of your 1 million mark.

Your typical college dictionary has about 200,000 words or so.

There doesn’t seem to be any consensus. Some articles even argue one should include all known chemicals and new species found virtually every day. That would run into the millions.
CAS REGISTRY is the most authoritative collection of disclosed chemical substance information, containing more than 88 million organic and inorganic substances and 65 million sequences

It has been estimated that the vocabulary of English includes roughly 1 million words (although most linguists would take that estimate with a chunk of salt, and some have said they wouldn’t be surprised if it is off the mark by a quarter-million); that tally includes the myriad names of chemicals and other scientific entities. Many of these are so peripheral to common English use that they do not or are not likely to appear even in an unabridged dictionary.


The English Language: 900,000 Words, and Counting


This, from the OED:

I’m a fan of word puzzles, for which a comprehensive list of words and inflected forms is essential. At present I’m using a list of 297,923 words. That list includes various doubtful forms: hdqrs, vowlz, etc.

This word list is not complete. There is a word puzzle in which featherlessnesses is part of the solution. But that word, present in the best proprietary lists, is missing from the word list I have, though mine does have featherlessness.

I think Google could easily provide the best estimate, using tools similar to Ngram Viewer. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have published anything … So if someone from Google is reading this !..

Slight diversion: so if a new specifies is found and named, is that name considered to be an English word?

I would consider it to be within the English lexicon, though not to the exclusion of the lexicons for other languages–i.e. it is not as if the English language “owns” it and other languages “borrow” it from English.

Is that your question?

Chief Pedant. I’m wondering myself if chemical names and names of species, can be added as words if they are used in English. These names are often in Latin. Does that matter?

Every once in a while I make up a new technical word. Most recent one is “unimorphism”, a portmanteau for “uniform morphism” and “morphism” is also a new word (coined around 1940). I doubt if either one is in any dictionary.

Thank you for asking.

If you read this Board, you’ll find that not even here is there general agreement that I get to decide. Apparently not every one understands that a User Name on the Internet is also dibs on the meaning of any title contained within the User Name…

Anyway, there is no independent arbiter of English (except me). The loosest definition of the English lexicon would include any word spelled with our standard alphabet (and even some wiggle room there) used anywhere from any source within a broader context of a structural syntax recognizable as “English,” much to the annoyance of L’Académie française (also an English word :wink: ).
So yeah; throw in chemical and species names (and those are not even a stretch). English is unconcerned with who else lays claim to a word, and what its etymology is. This is both its source of strength for breadth of expression and its source of weakness from fluidity of meaning.

Yes, that’s my question. )

Edit: misread your answer

I can see the argument for species, but chemicals don’t have names so much as that we have defined a method for verbalising chemical structures. Or, for example, if we took the “do re mi” verbalisation of music (aka Solfege), then you could give Beethoven’s 9th Symphony a name like “mimifasosofamire”. But really, it’s not a name, it’s just a description so robust as to uniquely identify its subject.

I’m trying to recall from an article I read years ago, but it went something like this:

10k-30k: Average number of words an English speaker uses per day.
800k-1mil: Total number of non-specialized words, ie. what you would find in a good unabridged English dictionary.
800k-1mil: In addition to the words above, specialized vocabulary used only in medical, engineering, science, etc. other fields but not by lay people.

In the article I read, the actual total is about 1.8mil-2mil.

However, since English is a “living language,” one aspect is that it is constantly growing and changing. New words and expressions are added all the time, and thus the true answer should be “infinite.” We’ll never know how many words the English language contained until nobody is using it anymore.

I would consider it to be a proper name, like Mt. Everest or New York. I wouldn’t think that proper names would be considered words in a particular language.

In any case, a species name is made up of two parts, a genus (which may be shared by many species), and the specific name, which usually has the form of an adjective, and which may also be shared by many other species. It’s only the combination of genus and species that is unique.

There’s no way that’s correct. There’s maybe only several hundred to a couple thousand unique words that I use every day. Even if you count all the words I say or write or otherwise “use” in a day, I doubt it comes close to 10k. Surely you just mean that’s the average colloquial vocabulary of an English speaker, or something like that.

…but chemicals don’t have names so much as that we have defined a method for verbalising chemical structures.

If a string of letters denotes a particular substance, then that string of letters is a name and how you derived it is irrelevant. Salt and Sodium Chloride are both names for a substance - as has been noted by Chief Pedant, the etymology of those names is irrelevant.

The Oxford English Dictionary (which is a 20 volume set in printed form) has ~ 218,000 entries. Are you proposing there is a more complete dictionary somewhere?

If you think about it, how many of the words you read every day are “a” or “the.” The article I read was talking about unique words.

I probably misremembered, but it was something like 1 mil specialized words. However, I would also argue that the OED wouldn’t include slang, colloquialisms, cliches, etc. Also, if one word (e.g. “go”) has 200 definitions, would that be 200 different words with the same spelling? If a surfer uses “break” to refer to ocean waves, while a doctor uses “break” to refer to bones, is it the same word? The thumb rule I generally use is that if the word is translated into any other language, is it the same word in the 2nd language as well? Usually, the grammar, meaning, and conjugation is different enough to classify it as a different word. Also, for homonyms, people generally consider it the same word with different meanings. But synonyms are always considered different words with the same meaning.