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

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 16:06:32 -0400

First, thanks to Mike Salovesh for an extremely interesting post.

Second, I want to add, for the list, that there are other problems in making
these word counts meaningful in a cross-cultural way, not the least of which is
deciding what is to be counted. I bring this up only because I sense, lurking
around the bend and about to strike, the dreaded "language A has a vocabulary of
only x words, so it must be simpler/more primitive/less abstract/etc. than
language B (usually English)".

Take the Aymara utterance

Aruskipasipxa anakasakipunirakispa:wa.

which means more-or-less "I know from personal knowledge that it is desirable
that we all make the effort to communicate with each other." Morphologically,
it's one word, i.e. one substantive root (aru) plus a bunch of suffixes;
phonologically also, since like all Aymara words it has one stressed syllable
(the penultimate). Much information conveyed by "words" in English is expressed
thru suffixation in Aymara. With one Aymara word, say 'uta' meaning house plus
suffixes you can say a lot of things that English requires many words for, e.g.

utawa. 'it's a house (I see it)'
utamawa. 'I see it's your house'
utamanwa. 'I see it's in your house'
utamjamawa. 'I see that it looks like your house.
utamanpachawa. 'I see evidence to suggest that it's in your house'

..and so on.

These 5 Aymara "words" require about 14 English "words" (some of which, it could
be argued, are not really words, like 'a' and 'to') to produce a reasonable
gloss. I'm just saying, you have to very careful if you want to draw any

Ron Kephart
University of North Florida