A site search has turned me up Size of active vocabulary in hunter gather tribes, and Which language has the biggest vocabulary?, but neither of those seem to address what I want to know about.

I realise there are problems defining what exactly constitutes a "word" for the purposes of counting them. For simplicity, I'm happy to say that, for example, word, words, worded, wording, wordy, etc. are all just manifestations of a single word. Correspondingly, wordsmith, blacksmith, goldsmith, etc. don't really count as separate words at all, for my current context (since they're all directly derivable from XXXsmith).

What I want to know is, given the above concept of "word" (or something similar), is there any evidence to suggest that the active vocabulary of Anglophones (the words they actually use in normal speech, as opposed to words they know, or can guess from context) is significantly different to that of speakers of other languages?

Possibly supplementary to that, is there any truth to the idea that there might be "culturally impoverished" languages? That's to say, languages spoken by people whose culture has less "real-world referents", so they might not "need" so many words? (no iPads, CAT scanners, or electioneering, for example). If so, do those people have a smaller "active vocabulary" than more "complex, advanced" societies?

  • No, not really. There's not even any reasonable data on the size of "active vocabulary" for English speakers. The question is ill-posed. What means "active" -- Active in Speech or Active in writing or Active in Listening or Active in Reading? What means "vocabulary" -- recall or recognition, derived or not, productive or not, borrowed or not, pronounced right or not, adult or not, native or not, idiom or not, construction or not? ... etc. And who's doing the measurement and who's paying them to find what? Personally, I wouldn't believe anything about vocabulary size.
    – jlawler
    Feb 23, 2014 at 18:56
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    @John: Edited to specify in normal speech. I didn't really think about "borrowed" words, but I guess they're part of a speaker's vocabulary if he uses them and expects to be understood (same with "incorrect" pronunciation). My interest stems from my (probably garbled / oversimplified) understanding of the Sapir-Worfe Hypothesis - that one can only think using "language". All else being equal, I'd suppose that all people (language users) can "think" equally well, so perhaps some might use "known meaningful combinations/permutations" more, to compensate for having a reduced "symbol set". Feb 23, 2014 at 21:08
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    ...but I do see a potentially big problem with "Who would pay for that?" (and of course, "Why would they pay?"). Feb 23, 2014 at 21:09
  • Oh, Sapir-Whorf. That's actually a self-selecting theory; people who do think with language -- or can convince themselves they do -- frequently espouse it, while people who don't (ditto) think it's BS. And they're both right, for whatever functions they're identifying, which are unlikely to be the same. It seems to be the case that many people integrate language with practically any other cognition, while other people vary wildly in how, and how much (what they call their) "thought" is linked with (what they call their) "language".
    – jlawler
    Feb 23, 2014 at 21:53
  • @John: oic. Well, I was just a callow youth of 18 when I was introduced to it. I've had a few desultory arguments over it since, with people who apparently disagree on principle but can't find the words to counter the idea. Your one comment there has been more enlightening to me on the subject than probably several hours argument/discussion over the decades (and you've managed to do it using "language"! :) Feb 23, 2014 at 22:27

1 Answer 1


There are a few factors that might confound your answer. For example, I'm pretty sure "actively" know several thousand more words than my father does; but then, I have a doctorate and lost count many years ago of how many books I own, whereas my father stopped going to school at age 15 and all the books he owns fit in a single shelf. So that's something you want to control for. If you are going to compare American English against, let's say, Mongolian, differences in education level alone are going to be enough to give you a false positive. Similarly, you want to average across a large cross-section of the population, to avoid effects related to some speakers (e.g., writers, journalists...) having an anomalously large vocabulary.

Once you get all those things into account, my best guess is that you won't find any significant differences in vocabulary size. Again to give a personal example, my uncle, who owns a farm, has an "active" vocabulary that includes many dozen words for farming implements, animal parts, different stages in the life of individual animals, types of crops, etc, that I simply do not have in my "active" vocabulary. Similarly, tribal languages of the Amazonian rainforest or the Australian outback lack science- and technology-related words, but they also have words that we lack, related to life in that particular environment.

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