Let me define "distinct". I mean how many base words are there (ignoring grammatical changes). For example, ice and water would be distinct words, but water and waters would not be distinct enough because one is just the plural of another. This goes for tense as well; eat and ate would not be distinct, and gender (I know French has a ton of redundancies in its pronouns) except for obvious things like he and she (or her depending on the situation). Also, things that are the same thing with a different name don't count (i.e shade and umber). Given that, approximately how many words are there in the English language?

It would just be good to know how many syllables I need to make for mine and approximately how many words you might make.

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    Hello and welcome to the site. This seems only tangenially relevant to the site, it would probably be better asked at English Language & Usage. But even then your definition of "distinct words" is extremely eccentric if you think "shade" and "umber" are a single word. May 9, 2020 at 9:25
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    @curiousdannii OP could count the number of synsets in the English WordNet. But that reflects more the WordNet than the language itself...
    – Radovan Garabík
    May 9, 2020 at 19:20
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    The concept you're looking for is 'lemma', though that doesn't apply to shade and umber (which don't mean the same thing anyway). May 10, 2020 at 15:40
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    The word "Byte" did not exist before 1956. The word "Anthropocene" did not exist before 1970. English has 15,831 syllables, but only 44 phonemes, all from a mere 26 letters - I think you need to rethink your question. (As it stands, you're basically asking "how many different types of thing or concept are there in the universe?") May 11, 2020 at 12:46
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    Do you count 'periodic' (sporadic) and 'periodic' (having a 6-valent oxy-iodic ion) as different words? 'Mere', 'mere' and 'mere'? 'Duck', 'duck' (material), 'ducks' (trousers) ... and 'duck' (verb)? 'ISA'? 'Inkwell' and 'ink well' separately? 'Ne'er-do-well'? 'Floor-warping', 'ceiling-spinning', 'brain-churning', & 'think-you're-gonna-die-and-afraid-you-might-not' [Chenoweth]? May 11, 2020 at 14:31

2 Answers 2



It depends.

There's no good exact answer for the number of words in any language for several reasons.

  • You may or may not count different meanings of the same spelling as a different word. But supposing you do (for implementation purposes I would), there's still a question of how different a meaning counts (like a repeated metaphorical usage). eg look at all the entries for 'set'.
  • The concept 'word' has lots of edge cases. 'hmmm', 'kachunk', 'mooshy' lots of entries in Urban Dictionary that will just never appear in Merriam-Webster.
  • New words are being added on (and forgotten) all the time. eg 'dove' for 'dived')
  • Different languages have different ways of legitimately creating words (affixes). 'paraneologistically' is legitimate but this is its first appearance ever.
  • For a given language, dictionaries vary widely in what they consider to be distinct words.
  • You might consider a different spelling to be a different word, but I hesitate to even mention this because while computer input is by spelling, spelling is just a convention. Really, alternate spellings are not different words.
  • you point out a good distinction, that 'water' and 'waters', 'eat' and 'ate' are mostly the same. The first is managed by stemming and the second is managed by lemmatization.

For all the above reasons though, none account for noticeable proportions of different words, except for multiple meanings. Pretty much every word has more than one distinct meaning. You feel like 'dog' is a 'dog' and that's all there is to it. But really, when Eminem refers to his homey as 'dog', it's a term of endearment that has little to do with canines.

Knowing an exact number of distinct words has little use. Knowing it roughly can give you a rough idea for resource allocation and general perception of processing.

From Wikipedia, there's an account of entries: M-W 470,000, AHD 350,000, WordNet 207.000, OED 171.000. This is like asking an app how many users they have; it could be # registered, # active, #non-duplicates, # pings from any IP addr, etc.

For fun, there's a constructed language called Toki Pona which was engineered to have 125 words, or rather root words, from which all other lexical things could be built. But that is a very very limited definition of word. And semantically you'll probably want to have many more entries in your database for the thousands of distinct concepts made out of those 125

Also for fun, there's a book by Randall Munroe Thing Explainer which is an experiment in making an illustrated scientific dictionary using only the 1000 most frequent words in English. But this also needs many more entries in its database for all the concepts that use two or more root words.

Historically, linguists have studied the distinct roots of words of Proto-Indoeuropean -and- Semitic. These, separately, each number in the hundreds. But that doesn't mean that 4000 years ago, their vocabulary was that small, just that the number of distinct roots was identifiable.

So in the end, the number of words is very rough, probably in the tens of thousand, but way more than 125.

Hey... you're still here. Maybe you're thinking of sounds systems? Hawaiian only needs 13 letters. Morse code really only has 2 from which other letters are built up. And if we're going there, you can do it with one letter, but you'll do a lot of counting.

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    In addition to all the considerations listed in this answer, it may be relevant to note that there is no sharp boundary that separates foreign words that occasionally appear in English contexts (but are still perceived as foreign, and are thus not to be counted as English words) and the words of foreign origin that appear in English contexts so often that they are perceived as English words (and so should be counted).
    – jsw29
    May 24, 2020 at 15:44
  • @jsw29 excellent point, and such foreignisms form a subset of any kind of neologism, where the new thing is a 'word' for the creator, but then spreads its neologisticalness to nonworders with time.
    – Mitch
    May 24, 2020 at 22:26

You mentioned you want to treat the synonyms "shade" and "umber" as the same thing. One standard term for a group of words that are synonymous with each other is "synonym set" or "synset" for short.

There is a project to analyze the meaning of English words called WordNet. According to the WordNet website, WordNet has 117,000 synsets. I don't know if WordNet is considered fairly complete or not.

Identifying the number of synsets is very tricky. There are varying degrees of similarity between words, so it is very easy for one person to make twice as many distinctions as another person on the same data.

It also seems that number of words in a natural language is infinite. You can make a computer program that goes through newspaper articles and counts how many new words it's encountered that weren't in the previous newspaper articles. If you extrapolate the count out, you'll see that it seems to grow forever without approaching a limit.

  • I don't quite see how the argument in the last paragraph is supposed to work. It would seem to me that with each new article there would be fewer new words for the program to record, so that, after a sufficiently long run of the program, the number of the words recorded by it would be asymptotically approaching the actual number of words in the language (that are suitable for use in newspapers). Is the argument perhaps based on the assumption that new words are being coined all the time? If so, it doesn't prove that the number of words is now infinite.
    – jsw29
    May 24, 2020 at 1:41
  • I probably shouldn't have said infinite. No language has had an infinite number of words used, because they haven't been around an infinite amount of time or has an infinite number of speakers.
    – Jetpack
    May 24, 2020 at 3:37
  • People have done experiments like this, and it doesn't asymptotically approach a constant. New coinages are definitely a big part of it. Misspellings are another big part and those need to be weeded out. But overall, it looks like a vocabulary is an open set, and it's really hard to draw a line separating all the words that are definitely in the language while excluding words that don't count as in the language even though someone has comfortably used it without a problem.
    – Jetpack
    May 24, 2020 at 3:43

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