How many words do you know?

  • There could be 1.7 billion words in the world, says Mark Pagel, evolutionary linguist and head of the Evolution Laboratory in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, England.

    There could be 1.7 billion words in the world, says Mark Pagel, evolutionary linguist and head of the Evolution Laboratory in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, England. Washington Post/Michael DiBari Jr.

 
Posted2/29/2016 1:29 PM

You wanted to know

"How many words are there in the world?" asked a young camper who attended a Lake County Forest Preserve District camp.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The answer could be 1.7 billion, according to Mark Pagel, evolutionary linguist and head of the Evolution Laboratory in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, England, about an hour drive's west of London.

Pagel's breakthrough research prompted a membership as a fellow in the Royal Society, a group of the world's top scientists, including Steven Hawking. Pagel uses statistical modeling to identify trait evolution, such as the approximate time period, between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, in which Homo sapiens developed language and cultural skills.

Your great-grandmother might have hopped onto the running board of her dad's Model T and skeedadled off to a shindig. There's no doubt that language is in a constant state of change, making words and phrases that were on the tip of the tongue even 50 years ago almost unheard of today.

About 150 years ago, Ludwig Zamenhof of Poland theorized that language could unify disparate groups. He created Esperanto, which includes about 160,000 words. With 100,000 users and an estimated 4,000 books, Esperanto is a speck when compared to the world's dominant languages, such as English, the language of 340 million people, and Mandarin Chinese with its 850 million speakers.

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Pagel made the connection between evolution and language when he was asked to give a lecture linking aspects of evolution to humans.

"I decided to work up a mathematical-statistical treatment of languages changing through time, in much the way that genes evolve through time," he said. "Just as our genes change, so do our words."

Pagel compiles statistical models to examine evolutionary processes, such as the emergence of complex human systems, to reconstruct features of dinosaur genomes and to infer ancestral features of genes and proteins.

He and other linguistic researchers are attempting to pinpoint the age of language, where it emerged, how original language split into 7,000 languages, and the means by which language spread.

One theory is it aligned with the spread of agriculture. Others believe invaders carried language away from its point of origin.

He considers the development of language to be evidence of social learning and a cultural adaptation that allowed humans to share ideas and even steal ideas from each other. Idea sharing forced changes that propelled our species forward to establish cooperative societies.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The results were transformative, as Pagel said in a recent TED talk: "Language is a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of civilizations."

Even though there are almost 2 billion words available for communication, Pagel said average daily word usage is very low.

"Many people use fewer than 1,000 different words in a given day," he said.

One of Pagel's research areas charts the density of various languages. His data shows multiple languages exist side by side in areas that are heavily populated, perhaps as a means to control the flow of ideas. He hopes that one day language will evolve to minimize conflict, just as Zamenhof hoped harmony would flourish with the universal adoption of Esperanto.

Interestingly, although Pagel has spent years researching the evolution of language, he "is not much of a polyglot," he confessed. He mostly speaks English, some French, Spanish and Swahili.

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