The English language is about to reach the 1million word mark. At least, by one person's reckoning - that of Paul Payack, a "word watcher" (of the Wordubon Society?) from Austin, Texas. Payack thinks he knows the precise time that the millionth word will enter the English language lexicon - 10:22 am (GMT) on Wednesday, June 10, 2009. He has a count-down clock ticking towards that moment on his website. While Payack seems all set to welcome the landmark linguistic event, other language mavens sniff at his presumptive prediction. They call his count spurious and claim that there is no way anyone can accurately account for the exact number of words in a language.
More from Tuesday's Houston Chronicle.
You may not find the words defollow, noob and defriend in the dictionary. But they and others like them — springing from far-flung corners of the English-speaking world — will push the mother tongue over the 1 million-word threshold in just a few weeks, Texas word-watcher Paul Payack says.
Payack, chief of the Internet’s Global Language Monitor and author of A Million Words and Counting, thinks the millionth word will join the language at 10:22 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday, June 10. Payack’s Web site features a clock ticking off the seconds.
A new English word is created every 98 minutes, he contends, hedging his bet by adding that his June 10 date is just an estimate.
A marketer of online research services, Payack says new words are fed to his Austin headquarters from around the globe — one-fourth of the world’s population speaks at least some English — then checked for acceptance. When a word is published at least 25,000 times, it becomes a candidate for the Payack’s new-word list.
Not a linguist
Payack, 59, holds a comparative literature degree from Harvard’s extension school and has no formal training in linguistics or lexicography. Still, he likes to think of himself as a latter-day Noah Webster or Samuel Johnson — master dictionary makers who had little formal training.
“We’re approaching this as poets,” Payack says, “not linguists.”
But harsh words are what linguists and modern-day dictionary makers have for Payack and his million-word threshold.
“He made it all up in his head,” says Robert Beard, a University of Michigan-trained linguist who collaborated with Payack on an Internet dictionary. “He’s a great marketer, but he’s a classics major. He knows nothing about linguistics.”
“I think it’s pure fraud,” sniffs Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley and chairman emeritus of American Heritage Dictionary’s usage committee. “It’s not bad science. It’s nonsense.”
Benjamin Zimmer, producer of an online thesaurus, dismisses Payack’s work as “a sure-fire publicity gimmick that certainly has proven successful.”
At the heart of their criticism, academics say, is the difficulty — if not impossibility — of calculating the language’s word count.
“It’s not something that can be measured that precisely,” says Jesse Scheidlower, North American editor for the Oxford English Dictionary. “I don’t have a problem to say there are approximately a million words. Other people have said that. But it’s absolute that it can’t be definitive. ... What makes a word is a very complicated question.”
How, for example, does one handle the various forms of “run” — run, runs, runner? How does one count compound words? What about numbers? Or regional language? Or obsolete words?
Major unabridged dictionaries contain roughly a half million words. But English, unlike French, has no official lingual gatekeepers to decide which words can officially join the language.
In an April blog post, Welsh linguist David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, says he tallied about 750,000 English words after comparing two major dictionaries in the 1980s.
“I then did some comparisons with technical dictionaries,” Crystal says. “I reached a million very quickly, and it was obvious that it was a task without end. ... There are over a million insects in the world ... and English presumably has words for most of them. ... And we haven’t even started talking about spoken language yet.”
Payack charges that the experts criticize him because “we’re doing something they can’t believe can be done.”
“We believe words can be counted if you define them in the right way,” he says. “You can count them like anything else in science. You can count how many atoms there are in the ocean.”