Re: How many words in an "average" person's vocabulary?

Timothy Mason (mason@CIE.FR)
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 17:32:52 -0500

-- [ From: Timothy Mason * EMC.Ver #2.5.02 ] --

Timothy Mason
IUFM de Versailles

The figure of over 2,000 (actually 2,600 but I was throwing in a factoid
here) for the average 6 year-old comes from a study reported by M.E. Smith
in 1926 (An investigation of the development of the sentence and the extent
of vocabulary in young children, University of Iowa Studies in Child Welfare
3 (5)). I found it in David Crystal's 'Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language',
(CUP, 1987). Crystal gives very little detail as to how the study was
carried out, but one assumes that some attempt was made to record the spoken
language of the children, as the study also included samples of children
aged from 12 months to five and a half years old. Crystal does remark that
it is difficult to interpret the totals given without knowing the method
used for defining words - for example, were 'go', 'goes' and 'going' counted
as one word or three.

The method suggested by Joos may be superior to those used so far, but is
still open to quibbles. First, it measures passive vocabulary, rather than
the words that people actually use - this may be another reason why the
scores are higher than those given by other researchers. Second, a
dictionary is a non-random sample of the vocabulary items of the language.
Using it as a base would probably under-estimate the number of items known
to and used by speakers of dialects or patois - not to mention bi- or poly-

Salovesh suggests that we should discard the results produced while subjects
were heavily under the influence of his deadly punch. I don't see why one
should - did they score higher or lower? It has been found that people's
pronunciation of a foreign language improves after drinking alcohol (Guiora
et al, 1980, 'The effects of benzodiazepine (valium) on permeability of
language ego boundaries', Language Learning, 30 : 351 - 63). Perhaps
vocabulary scores rise as well. It is nice to think of all those wobbling
linguists being touched by lexical grace.

Best wishes
Tim Mason