How Many Words?

A walk through the English language.

In a recent column, I mentioned the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the most reliable source for the meaning and spelling of English words. Although English does not have the most words of any known language (Mandarin holds that distinction with about 500,000), there are 171,476 currently used English words in the most recent edition of the OED (as well as an additional 47,156 obsolete words).

• Of all the words in the English language, 50 different words account for about 50 percent of all the words spoken and/or written in ordinary English (like those found in a daily newspaper).

• 100 different words account for about 60 percent of all the words used in ordinary English discourse.

• 3000 different words account for about 95 percent of what one uses daily.

• A relatively fluent adult English speaker knows between 20,000 and 35,000 words.

• An eight-year-old English speaker knows about 10,000 words. 

• A four-year-old English speaker knows about 5000 words, most of which are learned after age two.

These facts suggest several things. First, it takes relatively few of the many available words to be reasonably fluent in English. Second, there is a tremendous richness and diversity of English words that go way beyond the basic number we use to get by functionally. Third, children have an amazing capacity to learn words in a short period of time. By the way, the difference in vocabulary known by children when they begin school, which may range between 3000 and 10,000 words, will be the greatest determinant for their future success in school. This large difference in word knowledge for similarly aged children is mainly a function of how parents speak with their pre-school children and the number of books read with them.

In the 1970s, Ves Thomas, a University of Calgary education professor, conducted the studies that provide these word statistics. Thomas was a spelling specialist and developed a curriculum for the 3000 core English words spread over six years of the elementary grades. His simple techniques help students learn to successfully spell the 3000 words that account for 95 percent of what they will ever write. A great deal of time and energy are wasted by teachers each year in having children learn to spell random words they will seldom use, while ignoring the core vocabulary statistically determined to be the most useful to them for the rest of their lives.

There are many other fascinating facts about the English language and its many tens of thousands of words. There is, however, one English word that is more important to know than all the other current 171,475 words in the OED. That word is used between 514 and 810 times in the Bible (depending on the version). The apostle Paul, having learned this from Jesus, tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that of all words we could speak, spell and know intimately, “these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 

  • Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 46 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and three little grandsons.

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