There is a cognitive limit (the Wordsmith number) to the number of words you can know?

Most people know around 20,000 – 35,000 words (in any language). Extremely gifted people – very rarely – may approach a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Even multi-lingual people seem to have a total vocabulary not exceeding the limits of mono-lingual people. Twenty years ago when I lived in Japan, my English conversations included many words which I no longer have in my active memory. Similarly Chinese, Hindi, Tamil and German words that I once used regularly as part of my social conversations in English, are no longer in my active memory.

But why does each of us know so few words of all the words that are available?

It cannot be memory capacity in the brain that sets the limit. My hypothesis is that just like there seems to be a cognitive limit to the number of significant social connections a person can maintain (the Dunbar number – averaging around 150 with a minimum of around 50 and a maximum of perhaps 250), there is a cognitive limit (the Wordsmith Number) to the size of the active vocabulary that a person can maintain. (I note that the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers do not represent significant social relationships).

The more you read the bigger your vocabulary. The more you write the more likely you are to have a larger vocabulary. The more diverse your social connections the larger vocabulary you need and have. But yet, each of us knows only a fraction of the active words available in any language. The active words in a language form only a fraction of the total words in that language. And the total words in a language are a tiny fraction of all the words that could be formed by an alphabet a and a set of rules.

In any language, the rules of grammar together with about 2,000 base words would be sufficient to get by.  In any language a degree of proficiency would have been achieved with a vocabulary of around 10,000 base words. Over 20,000 words would be considered a high level of fluency.

The number of words needed to enable most communication needs is thus not so large. Equally, knowing words that are not used is pointless. Words that others don’t know is of no great use either. Yet, we have all at some time complained of  “not having the words to express our feelings”. We are often “lost for words”. Our eyes can distinguish shades of colour for which there are no specific words. But we use adjectives and combine words to express emotions or shades of colour rather than invent specific words for just that shade or that emotion.

In any alphabet where the length of a word is not restricted, there are an infinite variety of ways of creating combinations of letters to be words. In practice most languages have working vocabularies of a few hundred thousands and even if all possible variations and forms, past and present, are counted, the vocabulary may be around one million words. The Oxford English Dictionary has around 177,000 words as being in current usage and another 50,000 as obsolete. Similarly German has around 150,000 words as being in current use and Swedish has around 125,000. However current usage is not the whole story. Current usage is only a part of the total number of words available in a language where the total number depends on the age of the language. It is said that Japanese has around 100,000 active words in a total vocabulary of around 500,000. The OED estimates the total number of words in English to be around 750,000. Other estimates put the total English vocabulary at just over one million words.

Atkinsbookshelf:

According to the Global Language Monitor’s (GLM) “English Language WordClock,” there are 1,005,366 words in the English language. …… The Google/Harvard Study of the Current Number of Words in the English Language also arrived at a similar number — 1,022,000 (a difference of .o121%) ……… The Oxford English Dictionaries (OED) comes up with an estimate of 750,000, when counting only distinct senses and excluding variants.

The number of words that any person knows in a language is also not so easily determined. I would generalise to say that all modern languages have each around 100 – 200 thousand active words with a total vocabulary depending upon the age of the language and ranging from 300,000 to about 1 million. But, in most extant languages today, any single individual generally has a personal vocabulary which is only around 10 – 20% of the active words (or 2 – 5% of the total number of words) available in that language. An exceptionally gifted person might come up to around 30% of active words (or less than 10% of the total number of words). Depending on how words are defined Shakespeare is thought to have had command over about 8% of all the English words of that time but only used about 4% in an all his writings. In modern times James Joyce is thought to have had an extraordinarily large personal vocabulary and perhaps it was even a little more than 10% of the total number of English words. Ulysses alone – by one count – contains a larger vocabulary than all of Shakespeare’s works.

According to lexicographer and Shakespeare scholar David Crystal, the entire English vocabulary in the Elizabethan period consisted of about 150,000 words. ……… Crystal believes that Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 20,000 words (13.5% of the known lexicon). Compare that to the size of the vocabulary of the average modern person (high school-level education) that is 30,000 to 40,000 words (about 6% of the 600,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary). Other lexicographers estimate that Shakespeare’s vocabulary ranged from 18,000 to 25,000 words.

….. In their 1976 study, “Estimating the Number of Unseen Species: How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know,” statisticians Bradley Efron (Stanford University) and Ronald Thisted (University of Chicago) used word-frequency analyses to predict more accurately Shakespeare’s actual vocabulary, including the words he used in his writing (active or manifest vocabulary) and the words he knew but didn’t use in his writing (passive or latent vocabulary). Efron and Thisted turned to the Harvard Concordance and the 31,654 different words from a grand total of 884,647 words, including repetitions. …….. Thus to calculate Shakespeare’s total working vocabulary, we add 31,534 different words found in his writings to the 35,000 words he probably knew, to arrive at an estimate of 66,534 words. 

Taking only current words in English as an example (< 200,000) , most individuals considered fluent would have between 25,000 – 40,000 words in their personal vocabularies. (There may be the extremely rare person with a personal vocabulary approaching 60,000 words, though that is doubtful. But there is surely nobody with a personal vocabulary greater than that). Even for those who are multilingual, the sum of the words they command in all languages seems to be limited to be no different to those who are monolingual.

Psychologytoday:

the rate and pace of development of the bilinguals’ lexical knowledge were similar to those of monolingual children. In addition, the total vocabulary count of these children (taking into account both languages) was not different to that of the monolinguals, but their single language vocabularies were somewhat smaller. So we have known for some time that bilingual children do have as many words as their monolingual counterparts when both languages are taken into account but maybe not so when one examines only one language.

Why this apparent limit to the number of words one can know?

 

My hypothesis is that there is a stable level – the Wordsmith Number – which the brain establishes. It is a cognitive limit to the size of the active vocabulary that a person can maintain. It is established by the manner in which the brain learns, stores and retrieves active and passive words. It is a dynamic level and varies as our activities change (reading, writing, speaking, diversity of social relationships ..). Words that are not active are shunted out of active memory. In very rare circumstances is a Wordsmith Number of greater than about 30,000 established.


 

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