Although it’s often claimed that Chinese has the largest vocabulary, that count includes the many dialects, most of which aren’t understood by other Chinese.
English, in fact, has the biggest vocabulary of any language. In 1992, Oxford estimated English’s word count to be, “At least one million.” Two decades later, in January of this year, the Global Language Monitor suggests that count is 1,025,110.
Much of this vocabulary is attributed to the wholesale adoption of words and phrases from other languages. There’s never been any proper effort to exclude foreign words from the English lexicon.
It’s true that in Renaissance days, a few purists opposed what they called “inkhorn” terms, claiming that adopted language impeded the evolution of native English. The poet, Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) even tried resurrecting obsolete words. Nevertheless. purist efforts had no effect on borrowing.
How could it? Long before Spenser, borrowing happened. As far back as we can trace, we find evidence of borrowing.
Original residents of the British Isles spoke Celtic languages. Then along came Latin-speaking Roman invaders in 43 BC, and then Saxons came between the third and fifth centuries AD.
How did all this influence language?
Only about 100 English words can be called Celtic in origin. A few are crag, tor (peak), bald, whisky and clan. The Saxons had more influence. They’re the reason for English’s classification as a Germanic language. Nearly every short word in our lexicon — the, but, an, in, good, bad, high, low, eat, hand, foot, and even England and English themselves, are Saxon words.
Viking raiders also left their mark. Over 1,000 modern English words originate in Norse languages — landing, score, fellow and husting.
Although Latin’s influence is major, it’s not because Romans lived in England for more than 400 years. Most Latin loanwords arrived in the second century AD with Christian missionaries who introduced both literacy and a huge Latin vocabulary.
The Norman Invasion (1066) brought French-speakers to England’s shores, but Normans had scant influence on everyday language. French became the “court” language, spoken by the aristocracy and churchmen. Ordinary people still communicated in Old English. In fact, many English rulers, like Richard I (Richard the Lion-Hearted, 1157-1199) spoke only French and had no English at all.
Nearly all English words related to nobility come from French — baron, courtier, duke/duchess, noble, page, and prince/princess. However, king, queen, lord, lady, knight and earl, are Anglo-Saxon (Old English).
An immense number of loans entered English during the Renaissance (c. 1500-1688) a timeline coinciding with the Age of Exploration. Words came from more than 50 other languages and from every place explorers visited.
Adopting words is called “borrowing.” The adopted words are known as “loanwords” (loan words). Let’s look at some loanwords:
• We got boomerang, dingo and kangaroo from Australian Aboriginal languages.
• From South Africa, we took commando, trek and homeland.
• From Malaysia: bamboo, ketchup and amok.
• From Persia (Iran): caravan, turban and bazaar.
• From Turkey: coffee, horde and kiosk.
• From Japan: haiku, kamikaze and kimono.
• From Iceland: geyser, saga and mumps.
• From India: shampoo, pundit and bungalow.
• From the Caribbean: barbecue, dreadlocks and hurricane.
We could go on, but you get the idea.
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