English words … more the merrier! | Sunday Observer

English words … more the merrier!

According to a rough estimate the English language consists of one million words. However, nobody can remember all the words because it is an impossible feat. Of the million words, we can set aside around 300,000 as obsolete. Even then there are 700,000 words to grapple with. One consolation is that a major portion of these words are technical jargon. Therefore, an ordinary speaker or writer may not find them useful. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has about 500,000 words but all of them may not be necessary for language users.

Because of the bulkiness of the English vocabulary some attempts have been made from time to time to prune the number of words. Meanwhile, some people wanted to invent a universal language to replace English. Johann M. Schuyler launched his universal language known as “Volapuk” in Germany, way back in 1879. However, it did not succeed as a universal language. Thereafter, Esperanto was founded in 1887 and most people took it seriously.

In Cambridge, a group of scholars formed the Orthological Institute and introduced Basic English with a view to reducing the number of words to 850. In the 1950s a private institute started a distance education course in Basic English in Sri Lanka. I remember receiving a cyclostyled sheet of paper tabulating the 850 words. At that time I thought learning English would be an easy task. H.G. Wells predicted in his “Shape of things to come” that by 2200 almost everyone would use Basic English for speaking and writing.

Basic English

Emboldened by such predictions the Orthological Institute put out certain publications rewritten in Basic English. The Gospel of St. Mark was one such religious work that was rewritten. The original version of St. Mark begins: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare the way.” This has been compressed using the Basic English:” The first words of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

I have not met any Basic English scholar who did his work using only 850 words. The word stock of Basic English consisted of 600 nouns, 150 adjectives and another 100 words. To a person who has never studied English, Basic English is something of a godsend. He has to memorise 850 words and learn how to use them. However, for those who have studied English and are familiar with its word stock, nuances and idiomatic expressions, Basic English will not satisfy their needs. They know that millions of people throughout the world speak and write in English. Nobody seems to be complaining about the ever increasing English vocabulary.

As a language, English cannot compete with French which is as elegant as a sophisticated lady. English is also not so sibilant as Spanish. However, English cannot be replaced by French or Spanish because it can be used to learn any subject anywhere in the world. Because of its usefulness, English is used by scientists, literary men and philosophers. Those who use English are quite aware of the fact that they are using an amorphous language which is growing at a tremendous rate. English has already borrowed 60 per cent of words from Saxon, 30 per cent from Latin, 5 per cent from Greek and the rest from all the world languages including Hindi, Tamil and Sinhala.


The function of a living language is to grow. Only a living language can absorb words from other languages. Those who try to invent a world language or use Basic English do not realise their limitations. How can anyone express their ideas fully using a limited number of words? Language is meant for communication. In order to communicate efficiently, we need ideas. For the expression of our ideas clearly we need words. If our vocabulary is limited we cannot convey our ideas fully. Even to generate ideas we need words. Therefore, it is an accepted fact that in order to express our ideas we need more and more words. While Englishmen ask for more bread and butter those who use English ask for more and more words. In other words, limiting our vocabulary is not going to produce scholars. A language with a limited vocabulary is good for shop assistants and pavement hawkers to sell their wares.

I pity those who try to learn English in six weeks or three months. You can only get a smattering of the language in such a short time. Unfortunately, we are living in an age of quick methods leading to quick results. Students want to learn English in double quick time. They do not know that it is something impossible. Some so-called tutors brazenly advertise that they can make you speak English in two weeks. As their charges are high most students fall for it. After following such courses students will find it extremely difficult to speak or write in English effectively. In an open economy you cannot blame advertisers, but we should always remember the old adage “Caveat emptor” which means “purchaser beware!”

While learning we should talk. Even Francis Bacon said conversation makes a better man. We can converse only if we know the language. Some school teachers skip the conversation class because they cannot use the language effectively. The same problem exists when it comes to writing. Our schools and universities have not produced a sufficient number of writers during the past few decades.

Instead of trying to find shortcuts to learn English students should try to learn the language although it may be somewhat difficult at the beginning. All they need is will power. Language can work miracles for those who are committed to learn it. At the same time, they should welcome the expansion of the vocabulary without which they would not be able to wield the language effectively.

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