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How Many Words Does a Language Have?

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

How many words are there in Spanish? How about in English? Depending on who you ask, there are different answers… There is a certain tendency (among Spanish-speakers) to overestimate the number of words in Spanish as well as the overall variety of the language’s forms. Some say that it is out of a need to win some kind of competition more so than a defense of real numbers.  The problem is that there are no concrete figures… How does one go about counting the words?

I’d say that Spanish has a “ton” of words, or maybe even a “gazillion.” This makes me wonder: Does “gazillion” count as a word? What about other localisms and slang? You would also have to add the special terms used by certain groups: doctors, lawyers, artists of all types, “marginalized” more-than-wordsindividuals (locked up, drug addicts, etc.). You won’t find these words in dictionaries. And so I ask myself: Do you count all of the feminine and masculine variants, the singulars and plurals, the diminutives, the augmentatives….? And aaaaaaaaallll of the words that we make up each day, for text messages or chatting: some abbreviations, other “stretched” ones (like the second one in this sentence), other manipulated words or “vesre”* in Spanish? We also have “imported” words, the ones we copy, borrow and steal from other languages, plus those that undergo a slight phonetic modification and adaptation so that we can consider them new. And there are also bad words (which we’ve discussed here before) and although they are “bad,” there are a lot of them and they are widely used… even if they’re not in the dictionary. Does whoever counts words include those?

With everything said and done, whether it’s 100,000 or 300,000 words that “exist,” how many do we actually use? Depending on our cultural upbringing, I’ve heard that we use between 1000 and 10,000 words. How many more are there that we don’t use because while they are still in the dictionary, they are obsolete, out of style, etc.  Many are relegated to a catalogue of unused words that once belonged to our language. And many more will continue to be incorporated as language never stops growing.

However many they may be, they are our “prime materials” and we have to keep learning them in order to be able to use them in our daily lives.
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* “vesre” («revés» en vesre) is to form words backwards: this is a type of word formation that consists of the permutation or metathesis of the syllables of a Spanish word. This stems from the Castilian Spanish spoken in the River Plate area of Argentina and Uruguay and was popularized by the tango scene at the beginning of the twentieth century. A few examples: “mionca” (camión), “ñoba” (baño). ( http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesre)

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