What words are the most common across languages? Is there a list of 100 or 1000?

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    This question is really too broad for a meaningful answer. What do you mean by "words"? What do you mean by "most common across languages"? The most common word in English is "the", but German has a dozen or so different definite articles: should they all be grouped together for comparison with English? And so on and so forth. – Draconis Sep 21 '19 at 4:19
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    What Draconis said. You need to define a corpus. You could calculate such a list from the fastText .vec files. However it would contain many assumptions, and corous-specific skew and noise. – Adam Bittlingmayer Sep 21 '19 at 4:34
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    I want nouns, verbs, and adjectives in every language. Red, blue, sun, moon, etc. – Lance Pollard Sep 21 '19 at 4:46
  • I would say "god" is the most common word. – Lance Pollard Sep 22 '19 at 0:50
  • There are lists, but they may be worthless. For example this 1000-word list ef.com/wwen/english-resources/english-vocabulary/top-1000-words (presumably from the USA) includes "Republican", "Democrat", and "administration" - which are not common words at all in British English! – alephzero Sep 22 '19 at 2:04

There is no such list, but you could build one. You can find (multiple) frequency lists for many languages, and you could come up with a way to decide which frequency list to use (there are very many for English). I suppose you are thinking you might construct a list with entries like {day, Tag, jour, день, gün, siku, päivi, 日} where all of the words seem to mean the same thing and the words all end up on the top-1000 list in their respective languages (I don't know if they do, this is just a hypothetical example).

The problem is that the most frequent words in English (and many other languages) are things like "a, the, all, but, she", and these are not going to have correspondents in all languages. Plus, the various forms of the verb "be" or "do" and "don't" are each treated as separate words in some frequency lists. It would be more productive to define a subset of concrete nouns and "verbs" like "cat, dog, big, small, eat, walk" and get the N most frequent equivalents across languages. You must abandon the search for data in every language, but you could go for "as many as you can get". As a precursor to this exercise, you might try to come up with the N most frequent concrete nouns and verbs of English, filtering out proper names (unless you really want proper names to be included). Then do the same thing for Khmer. Then you have to decide whether "good" and ល្អ are "the same" in meaning (the Khmer word also translates "attractive").

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I think you are looking for the "Swadesh list", a list of the 100 most common concepts across languages.


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    Do you have a reason to think this is based on frequency, rather than "basicness"? – user6726 Sep 21 '19 at 14:34
  • The Swadesh list is based first and foremost on "resilience"—that is, the words on the list are unlikely to be borrowed from a different language. This isn't always the same thing as frequency. – Draconis Sep 22 '19 at 20:29

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