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Happy 1 million to you, English

laura kusisto

The English language reached 1 million words yesterday. It’s a bit of a humbling realization if you’re intent on developing your vocabulary. It means, if you want to know every English word, you will need to learn a word an hour for the next 114 years, which means you’re probably already too late. That’s also assuming the language doesn’t keep growing – which it will. And which it should.
You probably still have a few questions about this magical 1 million mark. Like, who decides? Well, the Global Language Monitor, of course. And how do they decide? Well, that’s a bit more complicated. Paul J.J. Payack, the president of the GLM, claims it’s quite selective. Words must make sense in 60 percent of the world to be included. How they count that, I’m still wondering.

And of course, you must be dying to know, which word was the lucky winner?

Web 2.0. That’s right, of all the delicious, erudite, decorous, grandiloquent, and downright abstruse words in the English language, Web 2.0 is magical number 1 million. They wanted to choose something timely, Payack says, so people could look back hundreds of years from now and find reflected in that one single word an entire cultural moment. The words that cluster around 1 million, which were considered and then rejected for the place cultural immortality, also say much about who we are, and apparently don’t want to be remembered as: Jai-Ho, for example-999,999; N00B-999,998; carbon neutral-999,995; octomom-999,993. And of course, 1,000,001, Financial Tsunami. That’s two words, which confuses me, but moving on…

As this multicultural bunch of words indicates, the growth of the English vocabulary is also intrinsically linked to its increasing global spread. Some 1 billion people worldwide speak English. That’s still slightly below Mandarin, but this figure does not include the 750 million more who can’t claim fluency but likely understand English well enough to listen to some English news or talk to an American tourist. At minimum, the ready supply of recent college grads with a lust for travel and a need for cash guarantees this number will continue to grow. Yet one question remains, more disquieting than any of the rest: As English enjoys laudable growth in both its vocabulary and its global reach, is it also fulfilling its most lofty ambition of bringing the world closer together?

Amongst my demographic of the young and university-educated, it’s almost impossible to find someone not at least conversational in English. Yet while for most people of my generation, the world has become a linguistically borderless place, most of us still choose to friend and marry within our own cultural circle. My South American friends say it’s because others don’t dance as well or understand family in the same way. My Turkish friends say friendships and relationships require a high level of mutual respect and deference. My European friends look for the romance of difference, where I want the stability of compatibility. We are accustomed to thinking of these as the kind of broad, cultural generalizations open communication will allow us to erase. But this is not my voice. It is the confident, fluently English voice of friends from other cultures, and right now they are using it to articulate their differences.

A recent headline in Foreign Policy speculates: “The key to U.S. world domination: We speak English.” The continued spread of English will ensure the long-term survival of U.S. values, like peace, democracy, and the free market, the article suggests. There are any number of problems with that statement, but the one that bothers me most is the suggestion that a common language is somehow enough to save the world. As children we learn language through fairytales, which makes words seem like magic. Eventually we realize that words themselves are static, and our imaginations are responsible for creating magic. Now too we are poised to comprehend each other, without truly understanding one another, unless we see that a common language is not the end but the starting point.

So happy 1 million, English. May you truly be the vehicle by which we change the world. And may I also live 114 years so I can one day get around to learning what number 999,988, chengguan, means.

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