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Millennium Wordpower

We are how we speak. Our choice of language says a lot about our identity. And as we start this new millennium, as Małgorzata Zdybiewska explains below, we have new choices to make regarding the lexis at our disposal.

"Vocabulary is the Everest of a language" (David Crystal: "The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language")

How large is the English Lexicon? Nobody knows. However, even a conservative estimate of English vocabulary cannot go much below a million lexemes. David Crystal in the "Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language" explains that a lexeme is the smallest unit of lexical meaning. There were 500,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1992.

Where does the vastness of the lexicon come from? The sources of the lexicon are numerous: borrowings from other languages, shifts in meaning and speakers' creativity. A language is a living and therefore constantly changing phenomenon. Words are born and die every day. Consider the word: "millennium". There has been a recent media driven millennium mania. For a couple of months we have been bombarded with thousands of phrases containing that magic word. See for example: 'millennium bug', 'Millennium Dome, 'New Millennium'. The list is endless. Millions of TV viewers must have suffered from a millennium headache around last year's New Year's Eve and that had not been caused by the amount of alcohol drunk on the occasion of the end of the year.

This particular word illustrates very well how new words come into the English language all the time and how old words are constantly given new meanings. According to David Crystal, there is a tension between the stock of native words and the avalanche of foreign borrowings into English. The 'living' language has to cope with new concepts, new situations, new ways of looking at the world. There seem to be four areas into which new words come in great numbers. These are: information science, medicine, psychology and business. Consider for example: 'feedback', 'break-even-point', 'marketing', 'peer group' or 'pecking order'.

Regular contact with an unprecedented number of languages and cultures in a global media environment has meant that the borrowings have shown a dramatic upturn. Obviously some new words are pure jargon. These would hopefully die out. But we should not consider all new words jargon or 'awful', or 'pollutants' of the language. That would be a very retrogressive attitude. A language has to be alive.


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