for English language learners

How Many Words?

'June 9, 2009 is the day when the English language reaches one million words!'

This claim by an American media company surprised the English linguist, David Crystal. Professor Crystal is perhaps the leading expert on the English language. He believes that there have been a million words in English for a very long time.

So who is right? How many words are there in English?

It's difficult to calculate accurately. One indicator is the size of the standard English dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED is the biggest of any language.

Oxford English Dictionary

defines 615,100 words. Of these words, 41,700 are obsolete. This means that you are unlikely to use them. There are even 240 ghost words. A ghost word has never existed outside dictionaries.

There are many other complex questions. For example, the OED distinguishes 430 senses for the verb set. Is each a separate word? And what about numbers. If you count to a million, do you have a million words?

But dictionary size does indicate that English probably has the biggest vocabulary of all the European languages.

  • A similar German dictionary offers around 180,000 words.
  • A Russian language dictionary has around 160,000 words
  • A French edition has less than 150,000.

The linguist Richard Lederer believes that the English language is the most 'democratic' in history. By this he means that the users of English help change and improve it. This is because English:
  • easily imports words from other languages, cultures and traditions.
  • "the relative simplicity of its grammar and syntax.”

How many English words do you need?

There are different opinions on this question. Lederer has suggested that a typical English speaker has a vocabulary of between 10,000 and 20,000 words. Steven Pinker talks of 60,000 ‘by high school’.

There is, of course, a difference between our passive and active language. Passive language is the language we know but perhaps do not use.

There are many words we recognise but perhaps do not say or write. Active language is those word we use.

Evolution of English

The Bible
Irregular Verbs
Perfect Language

Do you know the words we use to describe he English language?

Try this
crossword. You can find all the words in the glossary of this section of ESL Reading.

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Note for ESL, EFL & ESOL Teachers

What is ESL Reading?
An independent website providing free resources for English language teachers and students. These include reading and listening materials for use in the classroom or online.

ESL Reading is edited by
Kieran McGovern, described as 'amongst the best writers of language learner materials in English'. It has links with Extensive Reading, the British Council and many other organisations promoting language learning through reading.