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7. Overheard on the Web

A Diyalekt Mit an Armey

June 05, 2003 There is a much-cited aphorism in linguistics that "a language is a dialect with an army"; I think I had seen it attributed to Max Weinreich, but I did not know that he originally wrote it in Yiddish as A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot ['A language is a dialect with an army and a navy'] in the article Der yivo un di problemen fun undzer tsayt ("Yivo" and the problems of our time) in the periodical Yivo-bleter 25.1 [1945].

How Big is the Lexicon of an Unwritten Language?


Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2003
Jim Mallory j.mallory(at)

For some time I have been trying to establish ball park figures for the size of the lexicon of unwritten languages, i.e. languages that will not be full of learned European loans etc. and I have been getting estimates from historical linguists that range beyond a single order of magnitude (3,000 to 50,000). If there is a reliable source out there that covers such could you let me know. Otherwise, could this be asked around. I do appreciate how difficult this is to estimate especially given the problem of defining lexemes but some form of general order of magnitude would be useful.

From: Andy Pawley

I understand your concern to be getting an idea of the size of the 'indigenous' lexicon in languages of preliterate societies.

I can tell you something about estimates based on the better dictionaries for 'preliterate' languages of the Austronesian family and the Trans New Guinea (the largest Papuan) family.

But first some methodological considerations. We can't make useful comparisons without agreeing on the basic units to be counted. Defining terms such as 'lexical unit' and 'lexeme' is, as you indicate, crucial to estimating the size of the lexicon.

Like D.A. Cruse in his book Lexical Semantics, I regard the basic lexical unit as the pairing of a form with a single sense. Just counting 'lexical entries' or 'headwords' is highly unsatisfactory -- different dictionaries may organise entries on radically different principles so that counts of entries or headwords will not be commensurate. A polysemous root like run, take or head consists of many sense units and each such unit has to be learnt separately. A family of sense units forms a lexeme. One can in turn recognise a family of lexemes (related by derivation, compounding, etc.) which some dictionaries will include in a single entry and others will not.

Given that the 10 most polysemous verb roots in English total 552 senses between them in the Macquarie Dictionary (many more in the OED, but that includes obsolete senses), and the top 200 verb roots total over 3000 senses, you can see that a count of sense units will yield a much larger larger lexicon than a count of lexemes. Comparison is further complicated by the fact that different languages seem to have different amounts of polysemy. (It is true that there is some fuzziness in boundaries between sense units but there are tests for polysemy that work most of the time.)

There are other considerations. Just counting single-word lexical units will result in an estimate that is far too low. In most, probably all languages much of the lexicon consists of compounds and phrasal units. Estimating the size of the multi-word lexicon as opposed to the single word lexicon can't be done by a simple general formula because languages vary considerably in how much use they make of compounding and phrasal units.

Defining the boundary between inflection and derivation and whether to count inflected forms is another issue. I think most of us agree that we should not count regular inflected forms but we should count irregular ones. Another variable is the treatment of dialect variants. Some dictionaries represent a single regional dialect, others include material from a number of dialects. And so on.

Anyway, my own experience of attempting to compile comprehensive dictionaries is limited to one Austronesian language (Wayan Fijian) and one Trans New Guinea language (Kalam). I've been toiling at both for over 30 years, off and on.



Wayan is a dialect of the Western Fijian language spoken by a farming and fishing community of about 1500 people. The Wayan-English dictionary (1000 pages) contains around 35,000 sense units, of which probably not more than 3 percent would be loanwords from non-Fijian languages. I haven't done a sampling of lexemes but at a guess there are around 20 to 25,000. For sure, I have missed many thousands of multiword units and probably some thousands of derived words, as well as many foreign words and phrases that are more or less integrated into Wayans' speech repertoires.

Kalam is spoken by a farming people on the fringes of the New Guinea Highlands. At first European contact (in the 1950s and 60s) there were about 13,000 Kalam, though these divided into several regional dialects. The Kalam-English dictionary is smaller than the Wayan one, containing about 15,000 sense units. Why is it smaller? Mainly I think because Kalam doesn't have such a rich verbal derivational system as Wayan and because, unlike Wayan, it cannot derive verb roots from nouns and vice versa.

In her 1998 PhD thesis on problems in Tongan lexicography Melenaite Taumoefolau made counts of the number of entries in the largest dictionaries of Polynesian languages (Maori, Hawaiian, Tongan, Samoan). As I recall it, these ranged from 19,000 to 23,000. These figures don't tell us the number of basic lexical units (in my sense) but they indicate that these four dictionaries probably each contains on the order of 30 to 50,000 lexical units.

All of which suggests that your historical linguist friends who said 50,000 were talking more sense (no pun intended) than those talking 3000.

Of some interest are the inventories for specialised semantic domains. Kalam has over 1200 terms for plant taxa, Wayan has 600-700. The Kalam have a richer flora (Waya is a small island) and make wider use of it than contemporary Wayans, who are more westernised. Comparative ethnobotanical data indicate that preliterate language communities generally have over 1000 terms for plants, provided they live in a place with a rich flora. The Wayans exploit a rich marine environment and distinguish over 400 fish taxa, 140 mollusc taxa and about 40 crustacean taxa. Other studies show that Pacific Island fishing communities consistently distinguish well over 300 fish taxa, except for small very remote islands where there are fewer fish. The Kalam on the other hand are great on land animals and distinguish some 230 bird taxa, over 40 mammals (mainly marsupials), 35 frogs and over 100 creepy crawly taxa. I would expect other New Guinea Highland peoples to pattern pretty much like Kalam.

I'll post this note on the Austronesian Languages and Papuan Languages lists to see if any of my colleagues there have opinions.

Andy Pawley
Linguistics Dept, RSPAS
Australian National University

From: Larry Trask

I endorse Andy Pawley's reservations about the task of counting words. But, for what it's worth, here's Bob Dixon on Australian languages. Dixon is clearly counting lexemes, not sense units.

"Australian languages probably each have a vocabulary consisting of at least 10,000 lexical words -- nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. This is about the size of the working vocabulary for the average citizen in any country -- counts have shown that the number of words used in a popular newspaper in Sydney or New York is of the order of ten thousand."

R.M.W. Dixon. 1980. The Languages of Australia. Cambridge U.P. p. 2.

Dixon excludes the vocabulary of the special ritual languages and "mother-in-law" languages used in some Australian societies.

Dixon has recently published another big book on Australian languages, but I can't find anything there on the size of the lexicon. But the book does contain some interesting remarks on the seemingly extensive and often striking polysemy occurring in Australian languages.

R.M.W. Dixon. 2002. Australian Languages. Cambridge U.P.