What is keeping us through the day? Food, water and words. Food and water you know, but words like the English language? How many do you usually use?
Teenagers have around 10,000 words in their brains, while adults have an average of 20,000 or even 30-40,000 words. The choice of words is influenced by the individual’s lifestyle such as career, education, interests and where they live in the world. English can’t be a big deal. Or is it and from where?
“English is a crazy language and has acquired the largest vocabulary and the finest literature in human history,” says Richard Lederer with “Anguish English”, his most famous book on language.
“Still, one has to wonder about a language that your house can burn up and down at the same time. You fill out a form by filling it out. You add up a column of numbers by writing it down and you chop down a tree and first then cut it down, ”he says.
The English language lives, changes and often grows with humor. My sister, Elizabeth Miles Jacobelli, recently sent a quote showing an example of puns:
“If you notice cows sleeping in a field, does that mean it’s bedtime in the pasture?” We had fun with the third longest word (34 letters) used in the popular 1964 movie, “Mary Poppins” – supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Of the total of 6,500 languages used in the world today, 12 top the list. English is the largest – 1.132 billion speakers. The next four are Mandarin Chinese (1.117 billion), Hindi (615 million), Spanish (534 million), and French (280 million).
Our main language is far from perfect with lots of strange differences. French “borrowed” words often add elegance and romance, especially when paired with Latin, a language from ancient Rome.
German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon words have given English a lot of roots, while Latin and Greek words enrich ours with intellectual or academic Polish. The English word father has similarities with German father, French father, Latin father and Greek father.
The oldest languages, Sumerian and Egyptian, began around 3200 BC. With Chinese, followed by 1500 BC. English began in the fifth century AD. With three sentences since then: Ancient English until the Norman Conquest in 1066; Middle English to Shakespeare’s classical writing days when modern English began in the 17th century.
English speakers used a tenth of the words we use today 200 years ago. Many words change drastically, making our language different year after year.
Does English baffle you? I am, but my curiosity wins. According to ThoughtCo’s Richard Nordquist, words come from 350 other languages. Since the fifth century, English has comprised approximately 1,022,000 words, with 1,000 to 5,000 more words being added each year. The language contains various forms, such as archaic words that are no longer used today.
The largest dictionary in the world is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which began research in 1857. Early, limited publications began in 1895, but the first complete edition was published in 10 volumes in 1928.
As English continues to grow, a second edition was published in 1989 with 20 volumes and 21,728 pages. A third edition was completed and continued about halfway in 2018.
OED books with individual supplements were published in 1933. Today it contains approximately 273,000 words, of which 171,476 are currently in use. 47,156 obsolete words with around 9,500 derived words as subentries.
From the beginning, OED never deleted words entered in the last 160 years, but active words make up the smaller supplementary dictionaries. Electronic dictionary versions became available in 1988.
Language is linked to grammar, which we tend to ignore. Elementary school children, like us then, pay little attention to grammar until old age. When we are aware of this, we can make words more effective. They can change and become more complex or fade over time.
I am impressed that writing that was done a long time ago can sometimes be understood today. Think Shakespeare’s work from the 17th century when modern English began.
Correct grammar makes it easier to understand speech and writing. When it’s wrong, it can be distracting. Learning grammar makes English stronger and more comfortable.
Two grammatical examples of abuse bother me – commas and pronouns. I had to learn about it, but still make mistakes myself. These very brief examples suggest how to use English to make it more comprehensive and engaging.
Incorrectly placed commas in a contract can cost a lot of money. When used correctly, commas indicate certain language spacing and can help prevent misunderstandings. Commas like “Let’s eat, Grandma!” or “Let’s eat Grandma!”
Pronouns are often used incorrectly or in the wrong place. “Ryan and I had a party for my husband and me.” First, try “I threw a party for myself.” Then do an easier version with the correct sentence and no distraction. “Ryan and I had a party for my husband and me.”
Patricia T. O’Conner’s updated grammar book “Woe Is I” helps remove the uncertainty. “I” is the way to go instead of “woe to me”. The verb “sein” requires subject pronouns on each side, which are different from most other verbs, but which occur frequently. The target pronoun “I” shows another common abuse.
O’Conner says, “And let’s face it, English is crazy. Bright, educated, tech-savvy people who can run a computer table with their toes hear things like, “Come with the boss and me for lunch” every day. Take out ‘the boss and’ to see the wrong use of ‘me’.
Learning and using the English language with its endless complexities enriches communication. O’Conner says, “Believe me, it’s worth the effort. Life could be easier if we all speak Latin. But the quirks, the surprises, the always hanging nature of English – these are the differences between a living and a dead language. “
– Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen – a native of Santa Barbara, writer and book critic – teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and in the Santa Barbara City College Education Department. Click here to read the previous columns. The opinions expressed are their own.