The English language has endured throughout the centuries. It evolved from Old English to the modern English of today. If you were to go back in time to when William the Conqueror invaded the British Isles, you would not have understood what people were saying. That’s how different the English language was in those times.
The number of words in the English language has also increased over the centuries, primarily due to:
People were discovering new ideas, places, and things. New words came about as a result.
The increased use of slang and jargon. Language and its usage evolves over time.
The influence of other languages. English “absorbed vocabulary from a large number of other sources,” including Latin.
In this article, we’ll be looking at how many words are in the English language. We’ll also look at how many words the average person knows. Finally, we’ll compare the number of words in English to the number of words found in other languages.
The English Dictionary
First, let’s look at how many words are in the Dictionary. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words). Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, together with its 1993 Addenda Section, includes some 470,000 entries. But, the number of words in the Oxford and Webster Dictionaries are not the same as the number of words in English.
Slang and Jargon
It’s impossible to determine how many words there are in the English language from the dictionary alone. First, it takes a while for dictionary publishers like Oxford University and Merriam-Webster to include new words in their dictionaries. Slang and jargon also exist. There are different slang terms. Some exist depending on where you live, and others are common in many places. One example of a common slang term is “frenemy,” a portmanteau of “friend” and “enemy.”
Jargon, words used by people in a specific profession, also add to the volume of words used in the English language. For example, medical doctors will use their profession's own terms when discussing patients. Computer programmers and IT specialists use computer jargon in their everyday work.
The Average Person
It’s safe to say that the average vocabulary of people is less than the total number of words in English. When you use the word counter in Google Docs to count the number of words you’ve typed in an essay, that number will only be a fraction of the total number of words in English. There is just no way that someone can know and use daily every word in the English language.
But, how many words does the average person know? Robert Charles Lee, a published writer, answers this question on Quora. He writes that “3,000 words will cover 95% of everyday writing — common texts and speech like newspapers, blogs, most books, movies, etc.” Out of those 3000 words, only “the first 1,000 words are used in 89% of everyday writing.” R.L.G at The Economist states that based on test results at TestYourVocab.com, “most adult native test-takers range from 20,000–35,000 words.”
Now, let’s compare English to other languages to see which language has the most words. English has always been influenced by other languages. It originally shared “much of its grammar and basic vocabulary” with Dutch and German. Later on, it took words from French and Latin. Per the Linguistic Society of America, there are about “6,909 distinct languages” in the world. Most of those languages belong to groups “of languages that can be shown to be genetically related to one another.” English belongs to the “Indo-European family.” Other languages in this family include Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, and French.5 There are more, but for now, we’ll compare English to those five.
Here is how the number of words in the Oxford Dictionary—171,476 in current use—compares to the number of words in those five other languages. The figures here are taken from the Lingholic website, which base their numbers on the largest dictionary for each language.
Spanish has about 100,000 words in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.
German has about 135,000 words in the Der Duden dictionary.
200,000 Russian words exist in the Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian.
Italian has 270,000 in the Grande dizionario Italiano dell’uso.
French has 100,000 words but 350,000 definitions in the Le Grand Robert de la langue Française.
Just like it’s hard to know the number of words in English, it is also difficult to pinpoint how many words are in those five other languages. Slang and jargon exist in Spanish, German, Russian, Italian and French as well. Just like in English-speaking countries, there are professions in countries that speak one of those five other languages that use jargon.
What about “'agglutinative' languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of 'words?'” As such, these languages will have more words than English. For example, according to this article by Oxford Dictionaries, the Japanese and Korean languages both contain about 500,000 words.
In summary, the number of words in the English language is constantly changing. As new words become part of the vernacular, other words become obsolete. While it is good to know as many words as possible and continuously build your vocabulary, the average person only needs to know a small percentage of words to get by. Per Lingholic, “by knowing 1.75% of the English dictionary, you’ll be able to understand 95% of what you read.”