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Ask Mint | Having crowned its millionth word, English marches on

Ask Mint | Having crowned its millionth word, English marches on

Web 2.0 refers to the next generation of World Wide Web products and services. It was first used as early as 1999 by Darcy DiNucci, who stressed the interactivity of Web 2.0, which she called “the ether through which interactivity happens". The word is now closely associated with Tim O’Reilly because of the O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in 2004.

Almost immediately, voices were raised against the choice. Some linguists called it a hoax, a sham. To others it was clearly fraud, a PR stunt by publishers.

Also Read V.R. Narayanaswami’s earlier columns

To start with, how do we define “word"? Web 2.0 is a word followed by a number, and violates the long-established conventions of word formation in English. This argument, however, comes too late. English has gone ahead with diluting the distinction between letters and numbers. On the first page of my dictionary, I see the word A1, with the meaning “informal: excellent". English literature has given us the useful word “Catch-22", which has an entry in almost every English dictionary. We see “24/7" admitted into recent dictionaries, meaning “all the time". Perhaps “Y2K" made such usage popular and acceptable.

Assuming we have a definition of “word", the next step would be to find a formula for choosing the word to be included. Officially, a word that has been cited 25,000 times, with the necessary breadth of geographic distribution and depth of citations, qualifies for consideration.

A number of words that exist in spoken English around the world will not come into reckoning. Media channels will exert undue influence on decisions.

Obviously, some words have to be kept out. We do not count the millions of names given to various chemicals. Numerals form a class apart: If we list all the numbers from one to one million, we have a million words there already. My online dictionary has entries for twenty-one and twenty-two, and none for twenty-three and twenty-four. Numbers can be hard to define: My Oxford Paperback defines nine as “one less than ten" and ten as “one more than nine". Which came first, the egg or the hen? Words are accumulating at one end; some are becoming obsolete. Does the project count them out?

A glance at the words that made it to the final stage of the count reveals the dominance and vibrancy of English as a global language. The 15 finalists for the one millionth word include two Hinglish words, “Jai Ho" and “slumdog".

There is “Chengguan" from Chinglish. A word that got qualified one word too late was “financial tsunami": It became the million-and-first word. As someone observed, English is a lexical vacuum cleaner, which absorbs all the words that come its way.

Even while not accepting the findings of the project, lovers of English saw in the crowning of the millionth word an occasion for celebrating the triumphal march of English as a global language. English stands far ahead of its nearest rival, Chinese. It is estimated that 15 words are added every day.

The English language was brought to England about the middle of the fifth century by Germanic tribes from the continent. The language has a short history of 1,500 years. The Scandinavian invasion that began in the eighth century brought with it a large number of Danish and Norse words. These were words of everyday use like skin, skill, call, get.

The event that heralded a major transformation of English was the Norman Conquest of 1066. Since the ruling classes were French, their language, Norman French, became dominant. About 10,000 words were borrowed during this time. French has continued to enrich the English vocabulary. Estimates vary, but it would be fair to say that 40-50% of English words have come from French. The Renaissance saw the import of large numbers of Latin words, many of them via French.

The next important factor was the establishment of the British colonial empire. The colonies contributed to the English word-stock, and also adopted English as their preferred second language or foreign language.

In 1960 there were 250 million English speakers; today about 1.5 billion use some variety of English for business, education or social interaction. In China alone, 250 million people are learning the language. New words spread much faster today via the Internet and television.

After the millionth word, what next?

V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com

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