Total Pageviews

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why English Has So Many Words

I tutor English as a foreign language from time to time. One question I get asked a lot is why English has so many words that mean the same thing. I asked myself the same question when I was in school. 90% of what is spoken and written in English comes from a list of 1,000 words and 99% comes from a list of about 6,000 words. Yet a person whose first language is English knows at least 20,000 words.

One reason the English language has so many words is because England was invaded by 4 main groups and each group added some words English. The Romans added Latin, the Saxons added German, the Vikings added Norse, and the Normans added French. As a result, many times in English there are often 4 or more words that mean the same thing. Words like "big", "great", "large", and "magnum" all mean the same thing, but they came from different languages. Later, when English traders began traveling the world, they brought back words from the different countries they visited. About the same time, scientists began adding many new words from Latin and Greek to English. So English took words from many languages and they piled on top of the old ones.

Another reason the English language has so many words is that writers like to invent words for poems and stories.  All these words stayed in the language because knowing them became a way to show education. Since it takes a long time to learn all these words, people who know them are seen as smart.

What makes things even harder is that English also has many words that have 3 or more meanings. The word "get" is and example. By itself, it can mean: receive, arrive, understand, reach, kill, and catch. And then there are compounds like: get up, get down, get on, get off, get in, get bent, get lucky and so on.

My advice to learners is to focus on learning the most common words and idioms and don't worry about all the others. Use a dictionary to look up words you don't know or use a thesaurus to find a simple word that means the same thing.


No comments: