How is it possible that human beings are capable of remembering tens of thousands of words (later in life even being able to spell most of them correctly and increasing their vocabulary) and what these words refer to.

This seems to me like such an interesting question to ask, but googling returns zero results, which amazes and saddens me at the same time. Aren't people interested in this salient characteristic of our linguistic abilities?

TL;DR: what "tools" does the brain use to remember a fairly massive portion of the vocabulary of a language at a very young age?

P.S. I would like to make it clear that the only language I am familiar with is English, so I'm a bit worried that my question may be English-centric. I would again be amazed if other languages used different set of "tools". If there is some general theory (or theories) of how this phenomenon comes about not only in English, but in other world languages as well, I would greatly appreciate it if you could outline it (or them). And I beg you, please try to answer in as simple terms as possible as I am just a curious layman.

  • 3
    It is amazing and largely mysterious. One of the tools we use to handle the memory burden is the phonemic principle -- we remember long term only the phonemes of each morpheme and not all the phonetic detail.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 22, 2016 at 8:45
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    Your question is a bit hard to answer. What exactly are you interested in? A neurological explanation of what brain cells and synapses are active in vocabulary learning to make it so effective? This will hardly be explainable in layman terms, and I also fear there are no actual experts of that field here (though I wouldn't absolutely exclude the possibility). A description of what "happens" in the human brain when it learns and remembers vocabulary? I doubt this is something that can be captured concisely, the whole language apparatus (or the human cognitive ability in general) it's such a ... Sep 22, 2016 at 9:44
  • ... complex system even professional researches only know little parts of it, and I don't think these processes can be explained in simple terms, language acquistion is not like learning how to build a tree house that could be broken down into few discrete steps, and it also isn't something that happens actively, so you can't even talk about learning "techniques" like a cardbox system here. Are you interested in how the human brain is so powerful in general? Well, there isn't a real explanation to this. I fear the question is just too broad to be answered concisely. Sep 22, 2016 at 9:44
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    There has been a lot of research on the subject of first language vocabulary acquisition. One book that may help you is Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon by Jean Jean Aitchison.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 22, 2016 at 9:57
  • @lemontree the question is not about the human brain, but tricks that something like the human brain can use to store such a large amount of words. It is my personal amazement of the human brain in particular that probably led you to think I'm focused on the brain. The TL;DR and P.S. state the question very clearly and anchor it in the realm of linguistics, I believe. Sep 23, 2016 at 7:26

1 Answer 1


There is a so-called anti-lexicalist view of our knowledge of words. The idea is that while it is still impressive that we hold thousands of morphemes in our long-term memory, the size of our lexicon might be much smaller than we thought. For example, there is simply no need to hold past tense forms of verbs in memory because most of them can be derived by attaching -ed to a stem. So instead of having, say, 1000 verb roots and 1000 corresponding past-tense forms in your memory, you only have 1000 verb roots and one "reusable" -ed morpheme. Apply this to many other multimorphemic words and you get a severe decrease in size of lexicon. I also have a feeling that not all of the words we "know" are equally easily extractable - in fact, we do not use more than just 1000 distinct words in everyday life. So, I will be not surprised if thousands of words are not even stored in our memory.

  • A multi-morphemic word may be understood even if was never stored (by logically parsing the morphemes), but once used, some linkage of those morphemes will need to be stored, otherwise you couldn't properly recall that usage.
    – amI
    Sep 24, 2016 at 22:30

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