Words, words, words – How many do we need?

There are only four possibilities for the direct, primary use of words. You can think them, say them, write them or read them. (Note that in sign language, signing is a proxy for saying). The purpose, implicit or explicit, is communication. Indirectly, of course, you can learn them, or forget them or use them for some other esoteric purposes, but their manifestation is limited to thinking, saying (signing), writing or reading. There is even a case for writing to be considered secondary to thinking and reading secondary to writing. Words are invented but no word can exist as an arbitrary decision of an individual. Just making a particular sound, or scribbling some particular juxtaposition of letters or symbols, does not make a word. Every word must have an associated meaning but nothing is a word until the meaning and that association is shared with, at least, one other. Repetition of the word must invoke the same meaning. A word without an associated meaning – such as a word in another language – is just a sound or a squiggle but not a word.

But how is a word created in the first place?

The need to communicate in a social setting came first. The sharing of the association of a particular sound with a specific meaning must have come next. Note that in the absence of language, the invention of words must precede the invention of a particular language. Given a language, new words can be invented within it. To be a word in a written language today requires three components. A sound, a meaning and a particular combination of letters or symbols to represent the sound or the meaning. It would seem that symbols to represent meanings came long before phonetic alphabets came to represent sounds. Whereas symbols to represent meanings are restricted to shared meanings, an alphabet can represent – in writing – any sound. It provides the ability to write and then speak sounds which have no associated meanings and are not words at all. Hieroglyphs represented meanings and Chinese and kanji symbols still do. However, letters in most languages nowadays are phonetic. Combinations of letters represent sounds, some of which are representations of word-sounds. (Surprisingly Ethnologue informs me that of the currently listed 7,139 living languages, as many as 3,074 have no developed writing system. It is also estimated that there are around 150 distinct sign languages being used today).

No word originated as a jumble of letters or symbols. Sounds come first, associated meanings come next and letters or symbols then follow. In non-alphabetic writing systems, meanings are conveyed but there is no information about the sound. Phonetic alphabets convey sounds but meanings have to be inferred or provided by memory and teaching and learning. The letters put together to represent a word-sound follow the rules of spelling extant at the time.  During the lifetime of a word, its sound, its meaning or symbolic representation (spelling), all can and do evolve. Sometimes a word describes the meaning of a sound where the word-sound approximates or suggests the sound-meaning itself (bang, boom, sizzle, … ). Sometimes the word-sound has the meaning of that which creates the sound suggested by the word-sound (choo-choo train, tick-tock clock). Just as language enables conveying the abstract (including lying), the alphabet enables nonsense words and sounds. Dylan Thomas or Edward Lear would have had different lives without their command of the alphabet.

Wikipedia: Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as oink, meow, roar, and chirp. Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader linguistic system; hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as tick tock in English, tic tac in Spanish and Italian, dī dā in Mandarin, kachi kachi in Japanese, or tik-tik in Hindi.

Human brains have cognitive limits and exhibit individual vocabularies ranging from beginners having about 2,000 words and Wordsmiths with over 50,000.

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

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.

There is probably no healthy grown adult who has a vocabulary of less than about 2,000 words in some language. In a language typically having about 200,000 active words, there would be about 200 (0.1%) which were absolutely necessary and without which no concept could be conveyed. A fluent speaker would need to know only about 15% of the total and even the most proficient wordsmith would only know about 25-30%. With just about 1% of all the available words (2,000 words) more than 95% of communications in that language could be understood. Knowing just 1% of the available words in a language is sufficient for an individual to be fully functional in a society.

Children learn to recognise sounds and associate meanings well before they can reproduce them. By the age of 12 months they can probably recognise 50 -100 word-sounds. By the age of 2 years they can produce over 100 word-sounds and start combining words to convey meanings. By 4 or 5 their vocabulary is numbered in thousands.

When a 15% vocabulary gives fluency and 25% gives the highest proficiency, I cannot avoid the conclusion that language is vastly under-utilised. But what would our societies be like if being a wordsmith was the norm and not an outlier? I suspect that language is a tool that is, as yet, too advanced for the species and is waiting for evolution to catch up.


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