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Jewish World Review
March 15, 2007
/ 25 Adar, 5767
Word frequency lists tell us who we are
For those who think that our civilization is obsessed with time, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary recently added support to the theory by announcing that the word time is the most often used noun in the English language. The dictionary relied on the Oxford English Corpus a research project into English in the 21st century to come up with the lists.
The Oxford English Corpus gives us the fullest, most accurate picture of the language today. It represents all types of English, from literary novels and specialist journals to everyday newspapers and magazines to the language of chatrooms, emails and weblogs. And, as English is a global language, used by an estimated one third of the world's population, the Oxford Corpus contains language from all parts of the world not only from the UK and the United States, but also from Australia, the Caribbean, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa. It is the largest English corpus of its type the most representative slice of the English language available.
According to the Corpus, the is the most commonly used word overall, followed by be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I. Typical of such frequency lists, the most used words are hard-working function words that hold sentences together. The study also reveals that these ten words and their variations account for 25% of all written content.
These top ten are all single-syllable words. In fact, the 60 most frequently used words on the list are monosyllabic, as are 94 of the first one hundred. This concision and simplicity are the heart and soul of our language, just as the Anglo-Saxon tongue is.
English is the most democratically hospitable language that has ever existed, and it welcomes words from countries ancient and modern near and far away. But despite all our loan words, the core of our language is Anglo-Saxon. Only about 25% of our total vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon in origin, but, in most frequency lists, Anglo-Saxon is the source of more than 90% of the first hundred words.
Word lists like the Oxford Corpus tell us a great deal about who we English speakers and writers are. While he is the 16th-most-used word on the list, she is 30th. While the pronoun I comes in at 10th in the Oxford English Corpus, it is first on almost all frequency lists of spoken language.
Homing in on the most frequently occurring nouns in the Oxford Corpus shines a bright light on our values. Among nouns, person is ranked 2nd, man 7th, child 12th and woman 14th. Government occupies the 20th spot on the Oxford Corpus noun list, while war, at number 49, trumps peace, which did not make the top hundred.
William Shakespeare spoke of people who "run before the clock," as if the hands of the clock would sweep them away if they did not hustle their bustles. In the English-speaking world so many of us seem to be working harder and taking fewer and shorter vacations. The Oxford English Corpus confirms that obsession with time and productivity by revealing that time is the most frequently used noun in our language. Year is ranked 3rd, day 5th, work 16th and week 17th.
In his poem "To His Coy Mistress," the English poet Andrew Marvell wrote, "But at my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near."
According to the Oxford English Corpus frequency list, time's winged chariot is running us over.
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Richard Lederer Archives
JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. His latest work is Richard Lederer's Anguished English 2007 Calendar: Bloopers And Blunders
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