According to CNN, this past Wednesday, English added its millionth word. Academics argue that is not even possible to count the number of new words and that such announcements are more hype than substance. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that English contains more words than any other language on the planet and is growing rapidly each year. Chinese, for example, is estimated to have some 450,000 words—a distant second to English even with a conservative count. The Oxford English Dictionary has some 600,000 entries.
Today, some two billion people speak English. More documents, articles, and books are translated into English than any other language. One example, there are only about a dozen translations of Homer’s works into French. However, there are several hundred in English. English continues to be the language of business and the Internet.
One reason English is so pervasive is that it accepts new words. While many purists try to put walls around their language, English adopts and adapts words from around the world.
Another reason for its pervasiveness is the influence of the English Bible, which traces many of its words and phrases to translator William Tyndale. David Daniel, professor emeritus of English at University College London and Honorary Fellow of Hertford and St. Catherine’s colleges, Oxford, observes, “The English language, when Tyndale [1494–1536] began to write, was a poor thing, spoken only by a few in an island off the shelf of Europe, a language unknown in Europe” (The Bible in English [New Haven: Yale, 2003], 248).
Tyndale’s translation minted fresh words and phrases that still resonate with emotions. His command of English and the ancient biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek was remarkable, and his “gift to the English language is unmeasurable” (158). The King James Bible translators “adopted his style, and his words, for a good deal of their version” (158).
Several words or phrases he contributed include “atonement,” “Passover,” “Let there be light,” “I am the good shepherd” and “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Daniel notes the timelessness of this latter translation: “The simplicity of those seven words, in Saxon vocabulary and syntax, matching the original koiné (common) Greek, has continued since 1526, in almost all English Bible translations, in the twentieth century made in their scores, with only occasionally the substitution of ‘today’ for ‘this day’” (133).
Whether or not last Wednesday was a red-letter date for the English language, such an announcement draws our attention to this remarkably resilient language that is spreading to every nook and cranny around the globe.