The origin of English words

About 85% of words in the English language are from three languages – Germanic, French and Latin. 12% are from Greek and other minor languages like Chinese and Japanese. About 4% are proper names.

Different languages had influence on English at different periods in history. Latin was the language of the Church. French came with the Norman conquest, etc.

Finally, these numbers are counting types (dictionary-like count of entries of words) and not actual usage of words (frequencies of individual words).

In praise of lexicogrammar

Lexicogrammar is not a word you hear much but those of a certain following – cognitive linguists, functional grammarians, etc – use this word to describe what is traditionally call vocabulary and grammar as one system rather than being two separate systems.

As a researcher in prepositions this is a big deal. It means I (can) treat prepositions as vocabulary, requiring them to be learnt by students when before they were and still are somewhat relegated to the category of grammar. Vocabulary and grammar should not be studied separately. Vocabulary are not individual words to be studied, or looked up when you don’t know the word. Vocabulary only have full function within a sentence, and shine bright within the context of use within communication. Certainly, in Saussurean linguistics the signifier/signified duality of words are an important and enlightening feature. But words are best understood in communicative units, namely sentences. And Saussure will not have argued against that. In fact he argued for it.

Undoubtedly dictionaries are useful tools. But they generally push the learner to think of words as separate objects with separate meanings. Good dictionaries will give plenty of examples of usage but students will generally use the cheapest or most handy dictionary at hand. Today this is the smartphone dictionary and translator. Rarely do they give examples. And for most of the time they give one translation to one word, suppressing the multiple nuanced (often schematically-related) meanings that most words have. I shall talk about this point in another post.

Loanwords and the growth and change of a language

We have truly come to understand that language is usage in the last thirty years.

So when someone says that they disapprove of loanwords coming into their language they are really not understanding this point. They are coming from the Old School which thinks grammar (and vocabulary) is perscriptive, not descriptive.

English is itself a language built upon loanwords. The language has been borrowing words from the very beginning from Latin, Old Norse, French and Greek just for starters. And in this day and age it borrows from whatever language it comes into contact.

Why languages do so is because new ideas come in faster than words can be created. Also where the idea comes from also influences its adoptive form. So really when people are complaining about the loanwords they are complaining about influences that maybe seen as from outside the culture.

One should not be surprised that such insularity still exists in this day and age.

English is Rough

“We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

James Nicoll

Living abroad for three years will still only get you half the native speaker vocabulary size

It seems the average non-native speaker of English only has a vocabulary size of about 4,500 words. And over half of these learners will have a vocabulary size of greater than 7,826 words. This is a somewhat depressing picture for language learners considering the worst of native speaker adults still will have a minimum size of 20,000 words with the high end at 35,000 words.

So what is the best way for non-native speakers to increase their vocabulary size? According to these statistics from testyourvocab.com the biggest factor is out-of-class activities. The more you do outside of the classroom the broader your vocabulary. Otherwise three years living abroad will do the trick. Even then the non-native speaker will only have 10,000 words (that is equal to the vocabulary size of an 8 year old native speaker). To reach 18,000 words over 10 years of living abroad is necessary.

English is a crazy language

I am going to have a great time analysing these. There are either cognitive or historical bases for all of these I am sure.

Occupy – the trek from a verb to a compound proper noun

One of the key words of 2011 was ‘occupy’, or to be exact Occupy X. It is said to have begun in New York in September but was inspired by the Arab Spring and camp protests in Spain in May.

Words have the ability to fill a space in a language’s lexicon if one is not there as in this case. Theoretically there is no difference between these protests and others of the traditional line. But once it is given a status of difference it becomes an entity separate from the rest.

The difference is not so much a material one as one which is cognitive.

Why we should continue to teach the “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c'” spelling rule

The British government has said this spelling rule is no longer worth teaching because there are so many exceptions to the rule. I think this is a mistake – a mistake to get rid of it and a mistake or misunderstanding of where the rule is supposed to be applied.

I was taught this rule is applied only specifically words with two (or more) syllables which have the long ‘ee’ sound such as ‘believe’, ‘reprieve’, ‘receive’ and ‘retrieve’.

According to the BNC nearly 2% of all words contain either the ‘ei’ or ‘ie’ combination their spelling. This means you will roughly come across this once in every 50 words in writing. Of these roughly two-thirds are ‘ie’ and the remaining one-third ‘ei’. A further one-fifteenth of ‘ei’ (0.04% of the entire English usage) is specifically ‘~cei~’.

This may seem like a small portion but experience will tell you that you come across this enough times to have to think about it when writing.

Let’s put it this way, this rule is catchy enough to stay with most people. It is a just matter of knowing when to apply it – that is, when coming across a long ‘e’ vowel sound usually after the second syllable.

The following is a list of words to which this spelling rule applies to: ACHIEVED ACHIEVER ACHIEVES AGGRIEVE BELIEVED BELIEVER BELIEVES GRIEVERS GRIEVING GRIEVOUS RELIEVED RELIEVER RELIEVES REPRIEVE RETRIEVE THIEVERY THIEVING THIEVISH ACHIEVE BELIEVE GRIEVED GRIEVER GRIEVES RELIEVE SIEVING THIEVED THIEVES GRIEVE SIEVED SIEVES THIEVE SIEVE and CEILINGS CONCEITS CONCEIVE DECEIVED DECEIVER DECEIVES PERCEIVE RECEIPTS RECEIVED RECEIVER RECEIVES CEILING CONCEIT DECEITS DECEIVE RECEIPT RECEIVE DECEIT.

In the real world one would come across one of these words in writing about once in a thousand words (or about four pages of writing). That is plenty to warrant the learner to remember this word … unless looking up a dictionary frequently is something they enjoy doing.

And remember: all the rest of the time the spelling can be worked out from the pronunciation.

WordNet 3.0 Vocabulary Helper

This seems like an interesting tool, WordNet 3.0 Vocabulary Helper. Wikipedia defines WordNet as something which “groups English words into sets of synonyms called synsets, provides short, general definitions, and records the various semantic relations between these synonym sets.”

Created at Princeton University for research in Machine Translation. An offline version can be downloaded from the official Princeton University website.

Fixing the ‘Range check error’ in Range

I finally got Paul Nation’s Range program to work with my base word files, thanks to S.F..

The problem was in the fact I had unnecessary tabs and carriage returns between word families. But not having a digit after each word (like the original files) didn’t seem to affect the program’s performance.