Language and Life
How Many Words?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
How many words does your language have? In about 1990, it was reported that the English language has about 800,000 words. I remembered at that time that about fifteen years earlier, the figure had been 500,000.
So, that meant that English had gained 300,000 words in fifteen years! At that rate I estimated that by 2007, English would have 1,100,000 words! But the last figure I heard in about 2006 was 900,000.
English has 900,000 words! How can you ever learn them all? But then, do you need them all?
The basic vocabulary used to translate Today's English Version of the Bible (The "Good News" Bible) numbers only 800 items, plus 200 technical terms – 1000 words to express millennia of revelation history, culture and experience! The Special English broadcasts fo the Voice of America are based on an 200-word vocabulary, with extra technical words defined and introduced when needed.
The normal usage of native speakers of English (for example, Canadians, British) is normally about 2000 items. This rises upwards to about 10,000 for most professional and technical uses. Within technical disciplines, it would not be unusual to find about 20,000 items in regular use. This might be in medical school, in a physics lab, in a business executives seminar, or similar specialized context.
So again the question, "How many words do you need?" The simple answer is, "Enough!" You need enough vocabulary to handle your needs. No one can ever learn all the words available in a language. You need enough to meet needs, not all that are available in the language.
A physician needs more vocabulary to talk to another physician than to talk to a patient. The physician chooses a different vocabulary to talk with the patient about his illness. The patient needs only enough vocabulary to understand the doctor at a practical level – enough to trust the doctor and understand his instructions. In that regard, the patient may understand the doctor, but use more simple terms to explain the problem to her family.
My father was what some call a "health nut." He read manuals and magazines on health, organic gardening and, in his later days, pharmaceutical chemistry. He always asked his physician questions about side-effects, chemical structure and interaction of various medicines and such. I remember one time my father questioned a medication his doctor prescribed.
The doctor told him, "You read to much for your own good!" The doctor was not used to talking with patients at an advanced level. The terminology and level of discussion of my father was beyond that of most patients. My dad's personal interest and need led him beyond what other patients needed. What was enough for some was not enough for my father.
When you are learning a new language, how many words do you need to learn? Once when I was director of the Baptist Language Centre in Kenya, someone asked me how many Swahili words a student would know by the end of six months. I was stumped! I had no idea. I'd never thought about it. Our approach wasn't organized around words.
Language learners often look at a language in terms of vocabulary. I have even seen language courses setting goals for teaching so many words per week. But think. Even if you learn all the words, can you speak the language?
You can always add words if you know the basic sentence structures. But no matter many words you know, you cannot communicate anything if you don’t know how to put together a sentence!
Words are necessary for meaning, but they are not the totality of meaning. I have observed that many language learners limit themselves by tying the meaning of every word in the new language to a word in their native language.
This is really a tremendous limitation, because English word meanings rarely directly match, for example, Swahili word meanings. What you really need is the functional meaning of the new word, that is, how the word is used, what that word does in the sentence. This is particularly necessary for verbs and grammar connectors (like conjunctions, adverbs, etc).
You need a sentence in a situation, several sentences in fact, using that word. You should elicit from a language helper, or observe in natural uses by speakers, several good models of how the word is used. In those uses you will discover the meaning of the word. Learn those basic models and practice them, while observing further how the speakers of that language use that word, and you will develop a feel for the meaning and usage of the word.
This points up an important goal and function of language. Many learners approach language as they would any other academic subject, learning information, formulas, rules, and parts (words), by memorizing them. However, language is a social skill. Language is used by humans for handling communication events. Language is a primary means of communication between human beings. Okay, so what else is new? But why do we overlook that simple fact in our learning approaches (focusing on class work and memorization)?
People do not talk in word lists! They handle encounters with others, exchanging information as necessary. It makes sense, then, that it is easier to learn, remember and become competent in a new language if you are learning the language in the contexts in which it is used by the native speakers of that language in their own society!
Are you with me? So stop memorizing words. Instead, learn and practice them in real situations with real people. Forget English equivalents (except for general reminders). Learn basic sentences for each word on your vocabulary cards.
Consider structure words, like prepositions and conjunctions – how do you define a preposition? The only way to learn these in English is by example and practice. They are so idiomatic (non-standard, willy-nilly) in usage that often the learner of a European language must fall on basic trial and error. And some languages do not even have what we call prepositions in English.
Bantu languages, for instance, don’t really have any category of function word like the Indo-European preposition. It does appear now that some Bantu languages are beginning to develop prepositions rudimentary form, in similar ways as they did in the Indo-European languages millennia ago. But now most of the functions filled by prepositions in English are performed in Bantu languages by locatives, verb forms and sometimes syntax, the position of words.
Languages show relationships to objects and events in different ways, according to their different worldviews. Many cultures and their languages are dynamic, focusing on events and relationships. Thus the relationships of persons and things in these events are shown by verb structures, as in all the prefixes and suffixes in the highly efficient Bantu languages.
In classical and biblical Greek you can see a good example of an Indo-European language in transition, beginning to develop prepositions. Much of what modern European languages do with prepositions and adverbs, you see Greek performing in the verb system, like the Bantu family. Modern Greek has proceeded along the same lines of change as other European languages, developing more independent phrasing with prepositions, though Greek has been much slower in changing.
What is a Word?
But wait – what is a "word" anyway? This term may mean different things in different languages, due to basic differences in the structure of the languages. For instance, what about verbs: eat, ate, eaten – 1 word or 3?
Languages depend on and represent worldviews. The Bantu family of languages has such an intricately complex verb system that there is a fascinating and frightening beauty in the precision for describing events, whereas Indo-European languages are more oriented to description.
Swahili has about 20 tenses and about 25 aspects (endings) that can be stacked up on each other for almost endless combinations. But you find only three true adjectives for color, whereas European languages have intricate distinctions between similar colors along a scientific spectrum.
In many Bantu languages, the verb stem with all its prefixes and suffixes for subject, tense, object, aspect, etc., is considered one word. For example, in Kikuyu Ninguguchokeria is one word for "I will cause to return to you..." (some object like karamu, "the pen")! If the learner tried to learn every separate Bantu verb form as a separate "word," there would be no end to grief!
You don’t need to focus on learning words. You need to focus on making meaning! You get the mechanism for meaning in the structures and usages.
Yet the system for this intricate expression is simple, a stem plus prefixes for tenses and actors (on the front of the stem) and aspects (on the end). If the learner thinks of the basic event meaning carried by the stem, then thinks of the meaning of particular aspects of action, which can be put onto any verb stem, then there is only a limited number of items to remember.
Then the approach becomes simple: create what you need, when you need it, out of the particles you have learned. The linguistic term for such particles of meaning is "morph," or "morpheme." Bantu verbs consist of a root or stem, preceded by "slots" for prefixes, which follow a certain order (commonly subject, tense/aspect, and object – Swahili adds the relative marker before the object).
Bantu grammar provides “slots” for suffixes called aspects (stative, reciprocal, passive, applied, etc.) and focuses (my own term for indicative, subjunctive, negative, etc., indicated by a change of vowel on the end). There are many variations of this pattern, and many Bantu languages also have what we would consider "tense" markers on the end, as well as or in place of the prefixes.
But not to worry. The point is not how complex Bantu or other languages can be, but how to identify specific meaning markers, morphemes, and learn them by function, then manipulate them in combination with verb stems as necessary. Every language family has its format of expression.
In this approach you start with actual models of usage in the language and move to a feel for the meaning in actual function, then on to the manipulation of them to create your own nuances of thought and meaning, in your personal expression. This is rewarding!
So don't worry about the amount of vocabulary you gather. Concentrate on the events, situations and topics you can handle. Learn the sentence patterns which enable you to deal with time and aspect in various events. Learn the functional meaning of structure words or morphemes in order not to be limited to word definition and memorization.
And finally, not easy but very rewarding, forget your English. Do not be trapped into thinking you do not really know it until you get it into English. English fits English situations. Vietnamese fits Vietnamese situations!
Launch out into the language itself with the people themselves into the society itself. You will really make much faster and definitely much deeper progress!
Culture and Experience
How Words Grow
Mastering the Models
Quick Guide to Language Learning
Real-Life Learning — The Principle of Association
Worldview in Language: Language and Thought
Originally published in the “Language and Life” series in Afri-Com, a communications journal, Nairobi, Kenya, December 1992
Rewritten for Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources and posted 31 December 2007
Last edited 24 April 2010
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1992, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.