Vocabulary Size by Age and Education

Statisticians Bradley Efron and Ronald Thisted tried to figure out how many words Shakespeare actually knew. This analysis wasn't a trivial task and took pretty long time in 1976. Based upon the results of this analysis Efron and Thisted created a corpus revealing the number of words and frequency of their repetition.

In total, Shakespeare used in his works about 31,500 distinct words (some studies count up to 34,000). Interestingly that some of these words Shakespeare invented himself. A very pragmatic approach, isn't it? But did he employ all the words known to him? Most likely not, because like every human being, he had had active and passive vocabularies. And as far as is known, our passive vocabulary is much larger than the active one. Interestingly that the more educated a person is, the bigger is this difference.

After thorough consideration, the scientists came to the following conclusion: in addition to the number given above Shakespeare knew approximately 35,000 words that he didn't use in his compositions. Thus, they estimated that Shakespeare's real (i.e. passive) vocabulary made up about 65,000 words.

Now let's get back to the point and compare the vocabulary of contemporary people of different ages and educational background with the great classic playwright.

The table below displays the average (very average) figures of vocabulary sizes.

Education/Age Vocabulary Size (Base Words)
Shakespeare 34,000*
University Graduate 23,000
Educated Adult (High School) 15,000
Age 12 12,000
Age 5 5,000
Age 2 300
Figures taken from research carried out by English Today (Cambridge University Press).

*As mentioned above the actual Shakespeare's vocabulary could have contained over 65,000 words.

Take the test and find out your vocabulary size. Do a contest with your friend!