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Vocabulary refers to all the words of a language, or to the words used by a particular person or group. Also called wordstock, lexicon, and lexis.
English has "a stunningly bastard vocabulary," says linguist John McWhorter. "Out of all of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary,… no less than ninety-nine percent were taken from other languages" (The Power of Babel, 2001).
But vocabulary is "more than words," say Ula Manzo and Anthony Manzo. A measure of a person's vocabulary "amounts to a measure of all that they have learned, experienced, felt, and reflected upon. It is also a good indicator of what one is capable of learning… Every test is, in large measure, a test of vocabulary" (What Research Has to Say About Vocabulary Instruction, 2009).
See Examples and Observations below. Also see:
- Active Vocabulary and Passive Vocabulary
- Common Word Roots
- Introduction to Etymology
- Lexical Competence
Vocabulary-Building Exercises and Quizzes
From the Latin, "name"
Examples and Observations
- "How many words are there in the English language?
"No easy answer is possible. In order to reach a credible total, there must be agreement about what to count as an item of vocabulary and also something physical to count or to serve as the basis for an estimate…
"In effect, the overall vocabulary is beyond strict statistical assessment. Nonetheless, limited counts take place and serve useful ends, and some rough indications can be given about the overall vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines over 500,000 items described as 'words' in a promotional press release. The average college, desk, or family dictionary defines over 100,000 such items. Specialist dictionaries contain vast lists of words and word-like items… When printed material of this kind is taken into account, along with lists of geographical, zoological, botanical, and other usages, the crude but credible total for words and word-like forms in present-day English is somewhere over a billion items."
(Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)
- Vocabulary Acquisition
"By age two, spoken vocabulary usually exceeds 200 words… Three-year-olds have an active vocabulary of at least 2,000 words, and some have far more. By five, the figure is well over 4,000. The suggestion is that they are learning, on average, three or four new words a day."
(David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2005)
- A Bastard Vocabulary
"English, probably more so than any language on earth, 'has a stunningly bastard vocabulary.' Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all the words in the OED Oxford English Dictionary were born from other languages. Old English, lest we forget, was already an amalgam of Germanic tongues, Celtic, and Latin, with pinches of Scandinavian and Old French influence as well."
- (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)
- "The vocabulary of English is currently 70 to 80 percent composed of words of Greek and Latin origin, but it is certainly not a Romance language, it is a Germanic one. Evidence of this may be found in the fact that it is quite easy to create a sentence without words of Latin origin, but pretty much impossible to make one that has no words from Old English."
(Ammon Shea, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Pergee, 2014)
- Canadian English Vocabulary
"To summarize the comparative status of the vocabulary of Canadian English, it may be said that, where British and American English differ, Canadian English inclines usually toward American forms; that the language brought by American and British settlers was transferred to Canada largely intact, without a significant degree of differentiation caused by contact with Canadian Aboriginal languages (or with French); and that the number of true Canadianisms, which is to say Canadian words for things that have other names in other dialects, is small, but nonetheless adequate for asserting the status of Canadian English as an identifiable dialect at the lexical level--a distinct type of North American English."
(Charles Boberg, The English Language in Canada: Status, History and Comparative Analysis. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
- British English and American English
"There is a much greater number of American words and expressions in British English than vice versa. The much stronger flow of borrowing seems to go from American to British. Moreover, in general speakers of British English appear to know more Americanisms than speakers of American English know British words and expressions."
(Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction. Broadview Press, 2000)
- Scottish English
"The official and usual literary language of Scotland has for three centuries been Standard English--pronounced, though, with a Scottish accent and retaining a few Scotticisms in vocabulary. This Scottish English co-exists with Scots in an accent and traditional-dialect set-up comparable with that found in the north of England… "
(John Christopher Wells, Accents of English: The British Isles. Cambridge University Press, 1986)
- Australian English
"Australian English is particularly interesting for its rich store of highly colloquial words and expressions. Australian colloquialisms often involve shortening a word. Sometimes the ending '-ie' or '-o' is then added, e.g. a truckie is 'a truck or lorry-driver' and a milko delivers the milk; beaut, short for 'beautiful' means 'great' and biggie is 'a big one.' Oz is short for Australia and Aussie is an Australian."
(Michael McCarthy and Felicity O'Dell, English Vocabulary in Use: Upper-Intermediate, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001)
- The Lighter Side of Vocabulary
Ed Miller: I was with a girl once. Wasn't a squaw, but she was purty. She had yellow hair, like, uh… oh, like something.
Dick Liddil: Like hair bobbed from a ray of sunlight?
Ed Miller: Yeah, yeah. Like that. Boy, you talk good.
Dick Liddil: You can hide things in vocabulary.
(Garret Dillahunt and Paul Schneider in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007)