WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
When most of us think about language, we think first about words. Thus, the hardest part of learning a foreign language may seem to be memorizing its vocabulary; when we observe a child first acquiring speech, we talk of his progress as a matter of learning new words. We are also likely to feel that the adult speaker with the largest vocabulary has the best command of English. To think of a language as just a stock of words is, however, quite wrong. Words alone do not make a language; a grammar is needed to combine them in some intelligible way.
Moreover, words are relatively easy to learn, and indeed all of us go on learning them all our lives. They are also the least stable part of language. Words come into being, change their pronunciations and meanings, and disappear completely—all with comparative ease. Yet it is true that the vocabulary is the focus of language. It is in words that sounds and meanings interlock to allow us to communicate with one another, and it is words that we arrange together to make sentences, conversations, and discourse of all kinds.
Thus we have a paradox in that the most ephemeral part of language is also the center where meaning, pronunciation, and grammar come together.
- Find the Russian equivalents for the following words and word-combinations:
learning, memorizing the vocabulary, a child first acquiring speech, progress, a matter of learning new words, likely to feel, an adult speaker, the command of English, a stock of words, to combine, in some intelligible way, relatively easy to learn, indeed, the least stable part of language, to come into being, disappear completely, with comparative ease, interlock, the focus of language, arrange together.
- Find synonyms for the following words and word-combinations:
to combine, an adult speaker, relatively easy to learn, to come into being, with comparative ease.
- Make sentences of your own using the following word-combinations and phrases:
to talk of one’s progress; the most ephemeral part of language; the vocabulary is the focus of language; it is words that we arrange together to make sentences, conversations, and discourse of all kinds; to think of a language as just a stock of words is, however, quite wrong.
- Fill in the blanks (use the text for reference):
1) We are also … that the adult speaker with the largest vocabulary has the best … of English.
2) Thus we have … in that the most ephemeral part of language is also
the center where meaning, pronunciation, and grammar ….
3) Yet it is true that … is the focus of language.
4) When most of us think about …, we think first about ….
5) Words …, change their pronunciations and meanings, and …. — all with … ease.
- Make your own list of key–units and topical vocabulary
- Use the vocabulary practiced in tasks 2 and 3 to make up situations of your own.
- Summarize each paragraph from the text in one or two sentences.
- Present a summary of the text
- Discuss the text in class.
- Express your own opinion of the content of the text.
How many words are there in English? That is a question no one can answer. A desk dictionary of the kind most college students use may have somewhere around 100,000 words listed in it. One of the large, so-called unabridged dictionaries may list over 500,000 words. But "unabridged" is a misleading word. All the term means is that the dictionary has not been shortened from some other dictionary. A very short dictionary of only a few thousand words would be "unabridged" if it were an original work, so it would be a mistake to think that an "unabridged" dictionary lists all the words of English.
In fact it is not possible for anyone to count or to list all the words of any language—not merely because of their great number, but because those who use the language are constantly making new ones. It might be said that every dictionary is the dictionary of a dead language. No matter how fast and how thorough a dictionary-maker may be, by the time he has gathered his words, written descriptions of them, and published his book, old words will have changed and new ones will have come into being. The language refuses to stay the same from year to year, or even from moment to moment; it is constantly in the process of becoming something different.
Words have a life cycle. They come into existence; they change in sound and meaning; and they disappear. Now we will look at this life cycle of the vocabulary, beginning with some of the ways words come into existence. From time to time men feel the need for a new word, either because they have something new to talk about or because they have grown dissatisfied with the words they already have.
When the word-lust comes upon men, for whatever reason, they may satisfy it by making a new word or by borrowing one. Borrowing is a historically important source of new words for English speakers. From prehistoric times when our linguistic ancestors borrowed words like street from the Romans to the present century when we have adopted words like sputnik from the Russians, our political and social history is reflected in the words that have come to us from abroad. Moreover we have taken words from languages near and far: French, Japanese, Bantu, Polish, Polynesian, Greek, Arabic, Eskimo—the list is a long one. In spite of the importance of borrowing, no more will be said about it here. Loan-words are best considered as part of the general history of English. Moreover in current English, words are not borrowed as often as they are made within the language.
New words can be made from scratch—the process is called root-creation— or they can be built out of existing vocabulary material. You might suppose that creating a word ex nihilo would be the easiest thing in the world, but in fact it is one of the most difficult. Indeed, the Latin saying ex nihilo nihil Jit 'nothing comes from nothing' seems to be very nearly true when we look at the origins of our vocabulary. It is hard to find genuine words that were simply made up rather than made from other words. One such example may be googol, a term coined by the mathematician Edward Kasner to denote ten to the hundredth power or a number consisting of one followed by one hundred zeros. According to one story, Kasner asked a young relative what he would call such a large number, and the small boy answered, "Call it a googol." Whether the story is true or not, the word googol does seem to have been created from no other words at all, its very root being arbitrarily coined.
More familiar examples of ex nihilo words are those usually called echoic or onomatopoetic, words whose pronunciation imitates a given sound. Here belong some bird names, like bobolink and whippoorwill; words denoting motion, like whiz, crunch, and bash; names for some bodily activities, like hiccup, burp, slurp, and gulp; terms denoting noises, like tinkle, boom, and clang; words for animal sounds, like moo, purr, and twitter; and many other similar words.