How many words do you know? It is not a trick question.
If anyone had bothered to ask Bill Clinton that question, he would presumably have replied that it depends on what the meaning of “word” is. And that would not have been an inappropriate answer. For example, do all the different parts of speech in the conjugation of “to be” (I am, you are, she will be, etc) count as separate words or as part of a single word family? Bill was very familiar with conjugation, if the rumors are correct, which raises the further issue of how to count homographs and homophones. And then there is the difference between our active vocabularies and our larger passive vocabularies – words we understand but almost never use. There are many ways to count, and great opportunities for confusion!
What triggered this rumination was a snippet that a foreigner would have to learn about 2,000 words to be able to read a Chinese newspaper. That is comparable to English-language newspapers, where it is estimated that about 2,000 separate words would encompass most of the text, although complete understanding would require in the range of 6,000 – 8,000 words. A review of the Wall Street Journal over a period of a decade showed it used a total of around 20,000 separate words. For comparison, a very patient researcher analyzed 7,000 editions of Chinese newspapers and found about 60,000 different words, most used rather rarely.
To put things in perspective, the English language is estimated to have around 1,000,000 total words (however defined), with obviously many of them being parts of speech, technical, arcane, and used mainly by small subsets of English speakers (or lawyers).
China’s government sponsors the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) Language Proficiency Tests, which assess language competence at Levels 1 through 9. By level 9, the foreign devil will have learned 1,200 characters and understand 11,092 polysyllabic Chinese words. That seems like a challenge! But it is still far short of the estimate from various studies that the average mature native English speaker knows 42,000 – 48,000 words. Even the child-focused animated movie “Shrek” reportedly used a vocabulary of about 7,000 words.
Intrigued, I performed a statistically unsound test. I opened my ancient copy of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language at random on pages 994/995 – obligable to obtuse. I counted 106 entries on those two pages, of which 64 were in my active or passive vocabularies. Heroically scaling that up to the full 1,664 pages would give a very approximate estimate of 88,000 entries in the entire dictionary, out of which I would have at least a passing familiarity with about 53,000 words.
Saying those 53,000 words at a rate of one per second without repetition, it would take about 15 hours of constant speech to utter my entire vocabulary – which I have to admit does not seem probable or achievable. It may be that our passive vocabularies are a larger share of our total vocabularies than it would be comfortable to admit. All of this brings us back to another question Bill Clinton was never asked – Does size matter?
As an aside, this ramble used around 290 unique words. That amounts to about half a percent of the estimated vocabulary of a typical native English speaker.