Vocabulary: How Many Words Do You Think You Know?

On a day-to-day basis we take a lot of things for granted. It’s only when you come to transcribing audio that you acknowledge every word, noise or murmur and question quite how large our vocabulary is. Here, transcriber Colleen M shares a few insights into language, vocab and the human brain.

vocabulary in the dictionary

Language is a marvellous invention, probably the best thing since someone thought to slice bread. Without it we would all still be sitting around grunting and pointing at each other, with miscommunication causing all sorts of scuffles over that last bit of wonderful bread. But we are all far more civilised these days and know to use our words rather than our fists. Well, most of us. But when it comes to language, how many words do we really know?

What’s English anyway?

The English language contains over a million words, the exact number being constantly debated. There are so many various complex and compound words that it makes it difficult for everyone to agree. Are words like ‘don’t’ and ‘haven’t’ one word or two and should we include slang words or regional words or Harry Potter words? Anyone who has ever sat down to write anything (with accuracy) can attest to the number of hours they have spent slogging through the internet trying to determine whether to use ‘hair dryer’, ‘hairdryer’ or even, God forbid, ‘hair-dryer’.

The most commonly used word in the English language is ‘the’. ‘And’, ‘be’ and ‘to’ are a few other big ones and these are types of words that everyone uses. In fact, you would find it hard to form a sentence without including them somewhere. These are words you use every day, but it is not until you have to type what someone is saying that you find little curiosities occurring in people’s speech (“Could of”, anyone?)

Can that be Full Verbatim Please?

Anyone in the world of transcribing will probably agree when it comes to writing what people say, you usually find yourself typing the same words over and over, sentence after sentence, and it is not just the most common words you are repeating. That is because people rarely speak the way they write. People use filler words when they speak, words like ‘sort of’, ‘like’, and ‘you know’. These words can pop up numerous times in transcripts, often repeated three or four times in the same sentence. This is average, everyday, conversational speech. But it’s phrases such as ‘I was like…’, ‘He was like…’ that make you wonder whether we have forgotten other words to describe speech? Or perhaps out of the million or so words available, some people just don’t know that many.

Vocabulary 3

Vocabulary by numbers

By the time a child is two years old, they will know around 50 words. By the age of four, this will have increased to approximately 5,000 words, and by eight years old, to 10,000 words with children learning about four words per day. By adulthood, of these million plus words in the English language, the average native speaker will know 20,000 – 35,000 words, learning almost one new word per day. Interestingly, this learning seems to stop at middle age. One hopes this is because you have learnt all the words you will ever need to use and not because your brain suddenly shorts-out at middle age and is unable to absorb any more new information!
Vocabular 4 calvin hobbes

There’s a lot to be said for fiction

TestYourVocab.com did some research into the range of an average person’s vocabulary. What they discovered was the size of a person’s vocabulary seems to be determined mainly by the amount they read between the ages of four and fifteen. They also found that what you read can play a big factor. Those who read a lot and read lots of fiction outscored those who read a lot but mainly read non-fiction. They hypothesise this is because fiction typically uses a wider variety of words than non-fiction.
So hurray, we are quite word savvy after all with most of us reaching adulthood possessing a respectable range of vocabulary. Still, it does seem that the written word produces a wider variety of words than the spoken word. But maybe we feel the fewer the better when it comes to talking. After all, no matter how many words we may know, sometimes there do not seem to be enough to adequately describe the world around us.
You can test your own vocabulary range by going to Test Your Vocab to see how many words you know.