And, even more fascinating, how many words are in your personal vocabulary?
This article explores the estimated number of words in the English language, as well as the importance of knowing this information. While the exact number is unknown and constantly changing due to the evolution of the language, it is estimated that the average native speaker has a passive vocabulary of between 40,000 to 50,000 words, while the active vocabulary is about a third smaller. The language is constantly expanding with new words and expressions, and the vocabulary of science and technology and slang also add to the complexity of determining the number of words in the language. Knowing the size of the English vocabulary is important for language enthusiasts and linguists, but for the general population, having a solid foundation of vocabulary is more important than the exact number. The article highlights the importance of expanding one's personal vocabulary to effectively communicate.
The first question is easy to answer: nobody knows. You might think all we have to do is count the words in the biggest dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has over 600,000 entries. But there are lots of words that this or any other dictionary wouldn’t include. Even if we restrict our count to words in Standard English, the biggest dictionaries could never keep up with the idiosyncratic usages that we see all around us. Compound words are especially difficult to handle. In a newspaper article on the health value of red wine, I find the best-scoring grape, a mold-prone climate, barrel-aging and bottle-ageing. The writer talks about heart-friendly wines, supporting the red-wine-is-best theory. These are all clearly intelligible words, and some are going to be encountered quite often. Heart-friendly, for example, had 270,000 hits on a Google search engine the last time I looked. But they are not going to be included in a dictionary because their meaning is obvious from their constituent elements.
Examples of words that may not be included in dictionaries but are still clearly intelligible include:
The vocabulary of science and technology presents another problem. There are, apparently, some million insects already identified, with several million more awaiting description. This means there must be at least a corresponding number of lexical designations enabling English-speaking entomologists to talk about their subject. And similarly, unknown numbers would be found in whatever knowledge area we looked at, as academics are always innovating conceptually and devising new terms, or new senses of old terms, to express their fresh thinking.
Examples of lexical designations in the vocabulary of science and technology include:
Then there’s slang. By its nature slang changes rapidly and is difficult to track. Few of the dozens of words for being drunk, for example, will appear in a dictionary – lagered, boxed, treed, bladdered ... – and of course, nobody can be sure whether any of these items are still in use.
Examples of slang words for being drunk include:
These examples demonstrate the constantly evolving and diverse nature of the English language, making it challenging to determine the exact number of words in the language.
The ocean of English vocabulary is constantly expanding with the language's evolution as a global language. Words are being adapted to meet the communicative needs of communities adopting the language, leading to a vast amount of lexical creation. A prime example is the 20,000 entries in the Dictionary of Caribbean English (1996). For instance, "liming" is a term that describes the act of hanging out and chilling with friends, while "buss" refers to a passionate kiss. Such words are widely used by English-speaking communities in the Caribbean, but they may not be included in standard English dictionaries.
Measuring the number of words known by an educated native speaker is a difficult task, but it can be estimated. One can go through a desk dictionary and tick the words they know or take a sample of pages and make an estimate.
Research shows that the average native speaker has a passive vocabulary of between 40,000 to 50,000 words, often even higher. This includes word families such as "happy, happiness, happily, happy-go-lucky." Fluent second-language learners also have an impressive vocabulary size, approaching 40,000 words, especially if they are avid readers of English literature and frequently use the internet.
The active vocabulary, which includes both spoken and written words, is more challenging to quantify as it varies greatly depending on the time and situation. For instance, the words used during a festival are different from those used during other times of the year. Estimates suggest that our active vocabulary is about a third smaller than our passive vocabulary, which is still more than what most people expect. It is important to note that vocabulary sizes are often underestimated.
English vocabulary is like a never-ending river, constantly flowing with new words and expressions. As the language evolves and adapts, we must keep up with its growth by expanding our own vocabulary, to be able to navigate this river fluently.
Is it important to know?
Yes and no.
Yes, for language enthusiasts, knowing the size of the English vocabulary is like opening a treasure trove of words and expressions, each with its own unique story to tell. It gives a glimpse into the rich history of the language and its evolution over time, like a page from a timeless storybook.
Yes, for linguists and lexicographers, the number of words in the English language is like a roadmap, providing a clear direction for their work and helping them navigate the complex terrain of the language. They use this information to compile dictionaries and reference materials that serve as the compass for language learners.
No, for the general population, having a solid foundation of vocabulary is like having a sturdy sailboat, ready to weather any communication storm. The exact number of words in the English language may be fascinating, but it is not as important as having the tools to communicate effectively. Focusing on expanding your personal vocabulary is like nurturing a blooming garden, and growing and cultivating your language skills for everyday use.