Take a dictionary. Each word is defined using other words. Take all the words of the dictionary. The words that appear in their definitions is a subset of words of this dictionary (and not the whole dictionary because some words do not enter in the definition of any other). Now, take the words that appear in the definitions of this subset, this is likely a smaller subset. Iterate this procedure: we will likely converge to a subset of "essential" words, i.e. a list of words from which all other words can be defined. We can further reduce this list of essential words to its core by removing words that appear in a limited number of definitions, say less than 10.

I guess I am not the first to come up with this concept: are there some studies out there that calculate this list of essential words, give its size, compare the lists of different languages?

  • 1
    I could find only limited related references: Clark (2003), Lee (2001), Xu (2013). The relevant key word seems "controlled defining vocabulary".
    – bixiou
    Oct 24, 2020 at 14:22
  • 2
    Check out the Natural Semantic Metalanguage, it's where the most research in this direction has been happening.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 24, 2020 at 14:29
  • see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defining_vocabulary
    – Alex B.
    Oct 24, 2020 at 18:33
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? How many words can be considered "core words"?
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 25, 2020 at 4:24
  • All these comments are relevant but do not exactly address the specific question I am asking, notably because they don't use the same method, and don't show the lists for languages other than English. But maybe this method hasn't been tested yet. And overall, with these answers I got an approximate answer concerning the size: 1000-2000 words.
    – bixiou
    Oct 25, 2020 at 10:52


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