Words in Numbers

By the time we turn one, we know maybe ten to 20 words. By the time we are 18 months old, we know about 50. But how many do we know now? When asking around, I heard one thousand, two thousand, even five thousand, but those estimates are way off the mark. The number of words we know is in fact several multiples of that.

By the time we turn 13 we probably know over twenty thousand words. Most of us know at least forty thousand. If we´ve been to university and studied a subject to some depth, and kept up with the literature, we could know twice or even thrice that. We know so many words it would take weeks to count them! And that’s only if you speak one language. If you speak more, you can multiply that number by the number of languages you speak! And if you speak Korean, you could break all records because it is the language with the greatest number of words, running at 1,100,373 words just in the dictionary.

Although the exact numbers vary between surveys, the World is composed of approximately 40% monolinguals, 43% bilinguals, 13% trilingual and around 3% are multilingual (speaking at least four languages). So, odds are, when running into someone in the street, they know anywhere from fifty thousand to a quarter of a million words!

The human brain can accommodate scores of languages. Some people actually do speak scores of languages. The foreign editor for The Times during the early 20th century, a journalist called Harold Williams, spoke 58 languages fluently. When he went to the League of Nations international meeting in 1918, he could speak to every single delegate in his own tongue! Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti spoke, “with a rare excellence”, Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Arabic, Czech, Russian, Polish, Eastern Aramaic, Coptic, Ancient and Modern Armenian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, Farsi, Turkish, Albanese, Maltese, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Flemish, English, Dalmatian, Hungarian, Chinese and was fluent in Ge´ez, Amarinna, Classical Syriac, Hindi, Gujarati, Basque, Romanian, as well as a few, now mostly extinct, Native American languages. How many languages he had basic to extensive knowledge of is unknown, although the number is estimated at about seventy. His legend spread so far across Europe that when he died, in 1849, many tried to acquire his skull, perhaps hoping to glean the secrets of his language learning skills.

The three ways of keeping a language alive are through speech, written word or song. A healthy language is one where all three are happening on a very large scale, like with French, Spanish or Arabic. The most common official language in the world is English with 67 countries, followed by French with 29, Arabic with 26 and Spanish with 19.

There are approximately six thousand living languages in the world, up to seven thousand if you include dialects. It is estimated that half those languages will disappear within the next hundred years. If that is true that means about three thousand languages in twelve hundred months, 25 languages a year, or, in other words – or numbers – a rate of one dead language every two weeks.

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