December 08, 2006

Vocabulary size and penis length

Luis Martínez-Fernández, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, claims that "a person whose native language is not English can adopt the English language as a means of communication for a variety of reasons," and that one of them is "the need to use a more precise language with a richer vocabulary. (English has about 900,000 words, while French, for example, has fewer than 100,000.)"

Where do people get this stuff? It rather looks as if Martínez-Fernández may have swallowed the self-promoting Paul Payack's specious claim that the number of words in English is creeping up toward one million. But what about the support for the claim that poor old French can only muster a hundred grand? (I know I once claimed French is a miserable and inadequate language. But I was only kidding.)

It scarcely matters what number you give in contexts like this. The sort of people who are prepared to believe that you get greater richness and precision when you have more available words will believe anything, so you can feed them any numbers you like. Not long ago a significant number of totally clueless journalists heard that a gigaword corpus had been collected and ran away with the notion that all the words in it were different, so they trumpeted that English had a billion words. (Confusing a corpus with a dictionary is roughly comparable to confusing the set of all cars now driving on American roads with the set of distinct car models available in the catalogs of US manufacturers.)

Why does the number of lexical entries in the dictionary matter to people, as opposed to the number of fax machines, or the number of lost socks? Teresa Cunningham, who pointed me to the Martínez-Fernández article, lives in Europe, where she has plenty of experience in talking to people in languages other than English, and she remarks: "I have never had anybody turn to me and ask to ‘borrow’ an English word so they can express their thoughts more precisely while speaking another language." Quite so.

Precision, richness, and eloquence don't spring from dictionary page count. They're a function not of how well you've been endowed by lexicographical history but of how well you use what you've got. People don't seem to understand that vocabulary-size counting is to language as penis-length measurement is to sexiness.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 8, 2006 01:05 AM