The ever-evolving English language

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First aired on Babel (23/7/12)

Creative new words are popping up daily on the internet, in boardrooms and in classrooms. A recent study by Harvard University and Google shows that English has been expanding by 8,500 words per year, and it now stands at more than a million. And English is growing at an exponential rate, with 70 per cent of those million words being since just 1950. But what does this mean for how we use the English language? Babel host Mariel Borelli talked to University of Toronto professor of linguistic anthropology Marcel Danesi to find out.

Danesi says that when we think about language use, we have to keep in mind that everyone has two kinds of vocabulary: passive and active. The passive vocabulary depends on the individual, but can range from 300 words to 2,000 or 3,000 words. But these include words that require context to understand or definitions we have memorized. Our active vocabulary consists of the words we use every day, "when you're communicating unconsciously, regularly, routinely," Danesi said, and this ranges from 300 to 400 words for almost everybody.


Having both a passive and active vocabulary isn't new. But what's changed, Danesi says, is how we populate and use our active vocabulary. With new words popping up faster than ever, our active vocabulary is changing more rapidly than ever before. "It's being peppered with items that come and go in it fast and quickly," Danesi explained, including terms like "deletable," "locavore" and "Twittersphere." And, as language trends pass, the terms leave our active vocabulary as well. Danesi estimates that out of the 400 terms in our active vocabulary, 100 or so are "trendy words" that will slip in and out of your vocabulary as language trends come and go.

But why is English growing so quickly? Danesi has several theories. "English is the most pliable and the most used language in the world today," he said. First, it's easier for English to adopt the words of other languages, such as à la carte (French), burrito (Spanish) and lager (German). Second, English makes it easy to create new words by putting two nouns together to make a new easy-to-understand word, such as software, laptop and blackboard. These words are difficult to translate into other languages, which only helps in popularizing them as other languages also adopt them. Third, as we embark on social, technological and scientific changes, we need new words. Hence, Twittersphere and locavore.

But as just as we're keen to create and adopt new terms, Danesi says, we as a society are also quick to abandon them. And the digitization of communication, including dictionaries, means it's a lot easier for a word to be put into popular use -- and it's a lot easier to discard it once we no longer need it. Words are a commodity. "[They] serve a purpose like any object, any commodity does," he said. "We discard things all the time, we are stir crazy for new things all the time and the language reflects that."

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