There Just Seems to Be No End to It – Part 1

The English language has become the international language of the world. In addition to the 400 million people speaking English as a first language, about 800 million use or study Englishas a second/ foreign language. As English grammar is relatively simple compared to other languages, it is the vast English vocabulary, which poses a real challenge in the quest to master the language.

Almost every word in English seems to have many synonym sets with rough to subtle differences in meaning between members of each set. For example, to name the place where one lives, you can use home, house, quarters, or lodging (standard); residence, domicile, orhabituation (formal); and shack, digs, spot, or pad (informal, slang). A set of words can also be found to describe a person who talks a lot: articulate, eloquent, fluent (positive connotation); vocal, talkative, verbose (neutral connotation); chattering, gossipy, and gabby(negative connotation). There just seems to be no end to English words…

The most complete dictionary of English, the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED (second edition, 20 volumes, 1989) has more than 600,000 word entries (including archaic forms and variant spellings). Nevertheless, English is estimated to have more than a 1,000,000 words, as the second half of the 20th century enriched the language with an abundance of specialist, technical and scientific terms, not to mention slang and contributions from local English varieties (American, British, Australian & New-Zealander English, Indian English, and more). Just for comparison, Arabic has “only” 200,000 words, German 160,000, French 140,000, Japanese 116,000, and Hebrew 100,000 (rough estimates).

How is it that English has such a huge vocabulary, larger than any other language on earth? In addition to various word formation mechanisms existing in other languages, such as onomatopoeia, derivation, affixation, compounding and functional extension, the major source for the large variety of English words is its dramatic history. The 1,600 years of English existence have been witness to massive revolutionary changes in the language as it mixed with and continuously borrowed from other languages, with which it came into contact.

Early English roots trace back to the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries resulting in Old English being mainly Germanic. 83% of the most common 1000 words in today’s English are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Old English
  • nouns: house, mother, father ,cow, God, gold, work, land, winter
  • verbs: be, have, do, say, come, make
  • adjectives: good, new, and long
  • function words: he, of, him, for, and, under, on

Already in this period of Old English, the language began applying its inclination to ravenously borrow words from other languages. From the native Celts, it took clan, bin, gull, and crag, as well as names for places and rivers ( Dover, Kent, Severn, Thames). Latin words arrived even earlier with the Roman conquest of 43 B.C. ( cheese, cup, kitchen, plant, street, wine). A later wave of Latin words was brought with Christian monks and missionaries seeking to convert the Anglo-Saxons, enriching the language with both religious and secular words, such asabbot, altar, acolyte, candle, martyr, Mass, and lily.

The next addition to the vocabulary to close the Old English period resulted from the Viking invasions to Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries. These newcomers, who had settled alongside the Anglo-Saxons, contributed Old Norse vocabulary such as the following:

from Old Norse

  • flat, cake, take, get, call, husband, want, cut, both, ugly, fellow, hit, odd, egg, sister, law, leg, rag, window, die, are (form of the verb be)
  • words beginning with sk: scorch, scrape, scrub, skill, and sky
  • The personal pronouns: they, their, them

Synonymous word sets such as those presented above already show up in this period: sick vs.ill, shirt vs. skirt, wrath vs. anger, rear vs. raise, hide vs. skin, the first Anglo-Saxon, the second Old Norse, respectively. The all-in-all contribution of words from Germanic origins (Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse etc.) amounts to about 23% of the current English vocabulary.

The year 1066 marked the dramatic transition to Middle English, with William the Conqueror, king of Normandy in Western France, drawing his army into Britain. Old French thus became the spoken language of the ruling classes: the nobles, bankers, lawmakers, and scholars; the peasants and lower classes spoke Anglo-Saxon and some surviving Celtic dialects; the clergy used Latin. In the coming 400 years, Middle English gradually overthrew French and became the language of all classes, but words for government, religion, food, law, art, literature, and medicine are originally French.

Norman French
parliament, justice, crime, marriage, money, ornament, art, pleasure, joy, rent

The parallel usage of several languages has resulted in some famous duplicate and triplicate synonym sets. For instance, kingly (from Old English), royal (from French), and regal (from Latin). As well as house-mansion, wood-forest, answer-reply, yearly-annual, room-chamber, wish-desire, might-power, worthy-honorable, and bold-courageous (the former from Old-English, the latter from French, respectively).images (2)

Another fascinating example of the social divide between language users of Middle English is shown in nouns denoting different kinds of meats. The English speaking peasants who raised the animals used the Anglo-Saxon words ( swine/pig, sheep, ox, cow, calf, deer), whereas the French speaking elite, who could afford eating these meats regularly, used the French equivalents ( pork, bacon, mutton, beef, veal, venison, respectively). Today, these duplicates remain in common use in modern English, using different words for the animals and the meats produced from them. The contribution of both Norman and Modern French to English is estimated in about 29% of the current vocabulary.